Toronto International Film Festival

TORONTO -- An invigorating, funny, and moving portrait of a Hollywood hero, the new docu "Trumbo" brings the blacklist to life from the inside -- focusing on what it was like to live in movie industry exile, and the wisdom gained in the aftermath, for one particularly fiery artist. Prospects on the doc circuit are strong, limited only by a subject that moviegoers may assume to be more narrow than it is.

It's a self-portrait, to a great extent, as the film's most effective passages come straight from the man's typewriter: impassioned speeches, witty letters, and soul-baring confessions that he wrote, read by actors who remind us how lovely it can be simply to sit and listen to a talented actor speak finely crafted words.

The passages display such a love of language, from the sheer fun of silly poetry to the righteous thrill of analyzing and demolishing spurious arguments, that it will stir the souls of aspiring screenwriters in the audience, not to mention regular viewers who treasure their constitutional rights. Not for nothing is David Strathairn given a prominent part to play here: The rousing anti-McCarthy spirit of "Good Night, and Good Luck" reverberates through his scenes, getting us in the mood before the film lays out the specifics of this case.

In ample archive material (including plenty of charismatic interview footage of the man himself) and informative contemporary interviews, director Peter Askin's film (based on the stage production by Christopher Trumbo, the subject's son) details how the industry's highest-paid screenwriter found himself groveling for loans he barely hoped to repay. It recalls a nation whipped into anti-Red frenzy by Joe McCarthy and the House Committee on Un-American Activities, who harassed filmmakers to locate Communist sympathizers. (Never mind that, as Trumbo later noted of the Party, "they weren't as dangerous as the Elks -- and didn't have near as many guns.")

Like a few of his peers, Trumbo refused to answer questions, having inherited from his parents the belief that answering questions about political beliefs is a gateway; if you let people ask you how you vote, eventually "they can ask you anything." His refusal to cooperate eventually led to a stint in jail and an inability to get screenwriting work without the use of a front or pseudonym. These years of hardship, and the triumphs that ended them, are compelling doc material on their own.

But the film's great asset is the staged reading of material unearthed in an archive and published by editor Helen Manfull. The nature of these texts is wide-ranging, from a playfully nasty back-and-forth with the phone company (read by Paul Giamatti), to love letters mailed from prison (Josh Lucas), to more philosophical material read by Donald Sutherland and others. In a film full of impassioned stand-up-for-what's-right moments, though, a bit of comic virtuosity stands out, transforming "Trumbo" briefly into a highbrow uncle of "Superbad": Nathan Lane reads a letter from Trumbo to his son in which the youngster is exhorted to dive, headfirst and guilt-free, into masturbation. Trumbo's exquisitely pornographic account of his own teenage onanism, and his lament over the guilt he felt at the time, must be heard to be believed.

Moments like that keep "Trumbo" from feeling like a civics lesson, and remind us that it's possible, if rare, for an unyielding idealist to be the life of the party.

No Distributor
Safehouse Pictures
Director: Peter Askin
Writer: Christopher Trumbo
Producers: Will Battersby, Tory Tunnell, Alan Klingenstein, David Viola
Executive producer: Jim Kohlberg
Directors of photography: Frank Prinzi, Jonathan Furmanski, Fred Murphy, Chris Norr
Production designer: Stephanie Carroll
Music: Robert Miller
Co-producer: Kurt Engfehr
Costume designer: Sarah Beers
Editor: Kurt Engfehr
Running time -- 96 minutes
No MPAA rating