The two-man show from the 2003-2004 season comes to the screen with a broader perspective and a truckload of Trumbos. Christopher Trumbo, son of the famed screenwriter and Hollywood Ten blacklistee, based the Off Broadway production on a collection of his father's letters, published in 1970 as Additional Dialogue. Gordon MacDonald played Christopher, and narrated- two of the actors who played Dalton in New York, Nathan Lane and Brian Dennehy, reprise the role in epistolary segments, joined by Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, David Strathairn, Paul Giamatti, Josh Lucas, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland, who co-starred in Trumbo's 1971 film of his award-winning antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun.
The play's director, Peter Askin, has reshaped the material into a conventional documentary, with footage of its acerbic subject and additional talking heads including Naming Names author Victor Navasky and blacklist survivor and Trumbo friend Jean Rouverol, a spry 91-year-old. Clips from his films (his successful credits, including Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and the Oscar-nominated Kitty Foyle, made him one of the industry's highest-paid scribes) and the 1947 hearings that forced him underground are also interspersed. The turn of events forced him to hide behind fronts and give up a cozy ranch in the Southern California mountains for uncertain prospects in Mexico with his close-knit family. But in a controversial 1970 speech, which Strathairn reads from, Trumbo forgave his interrogators, and informants who cooperated with the committee: There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.
The public aspect of Trumbo, who was a good deal less conciliatory earlier on, is one part of the film. It's the readings from his personal letters that command the screen, as they did the stage. An editor friend of mine has two copies of Additional Dialogue, one for himself, and one for friends to borrow. It's no wonder the second is in constant circulation. Lucas movingly reads letters from prison, where Trumbo did an 11-month stretch for refusing to testify. Giamatti's testiness is a perfect match for peeved letters to the phone company (which wrote back), as the disruption of his spendthrift lifestyle took its toll on his utility bills. The highlight is a ribald piece about the delights of masturbation, written by Trumbo to Christopher, and read uproariously by Lane.
The enormity of the blacklist is outside the scope of Trumbo. Curiously, however, the remainder of his life (once his credits on Exodus and Spartacus in 1960 helped end the Red Scare era) is skipped over, outside of brief comments from Sutherland and Dustin Hoffman, star of the Trumbo-written Papillon. He died in 1976. But at a time when civil liberties are again under siege, without the show trials, this is not ancient history. The saga of disillusionment and defiance that is Trumbo is a good primer on the subject-and fair warning of what may yet come in our own troubled times.