Once upon a time, Dalton Trumbo was a screenwriter with plentiful credits and as much respect as a scribe could muster from the industry. Then he became part of the pariah fraternity known as the Hollywood Ten, and his salad days came to an abrupt end. The tenacious wordsmith eventually got his name back on screen, but during his professional exile, the primary outlets for Trumbo’s bilious eloquence were a series of letters to friends, fellow travelers and foes. Peter Askin’s tribute is essentially two parallel films jockeying for space. One is a straightforward doc on the blacklist, complete with testimonials and home movies; the other is an adaptation of Christopher Trumbo’s play based on his father’s collected correspondence, peppered with famous faces reading these poignant, perversely funny missives.
Balancing the political and the personal is a smart idea, though the resulting togglethon ends up being the uneasiest of marriages. Far be it from me to dismiss Paul Giamatti turning Trumbo’s poison-pen rant to the phone company into a one-man comic tornado, but Askin—who directed an Off Broadway production of Trumbo in 2003—cuts away from chewy nonfiction chapters in order to let celebrities like Michael Douglas and Liam Neeson engage in I-can-emote-better-than-you contests. Trumbo’s voice does come through; the man himself, however, keeps getting upstaged.