23 years after his death, Dalton Trumbo (“Johnny Got His Gun”) remains among the best-known screenwriters of all time. Ironically, that’s largely because much of his best work was done in secret. Jailed in 1950 and then blacklisted for his refusal to discuss his constitutionally protected membership in the Communist Party, Trumbo survived by writing prodigiously, using pseudonyms and “fronts” until 1960, when director Otto Preminger and actor-producer Kirk Douglas openly placed his name in the credits for “Exodus” and “Spartacus” and sounded the first death knell of the Hollywood blacklist.
Drawn partly from a play by the writer’s son, Christopher Trumbo, and featured on PBS’s “American Masters,” this documentary combines interviews with Trumbo’s family and friends, including stars Kirk Douglas and Dustin Hoffman, and dramatic interpretations of his writing by a long list of acting heavyweights such as Joan Allen, Michael Douglas, Liam Neeson, and Donald Sutherland. On the down side, director Peter Askin plays up Trumbo’s heroism while playing down his political extremism and indulges in some pretentious and annoying cinematic tics, including shooting the actors looking on pensively while their occasionally overdone readings play on the soundtrack. Still, when Askin captures the writer’s unsentimental and often humorous essence — as in Nathan Lane’s wry reading of an ingenious letter to the teenage Christopher Trumbo on the joys of masturbation and Paul Giamatti’s testy renditions of Trumbo’s broadsides at his local phone company — this is a highly engaging summary of the life and work of a singular figure in mid-century movie history.