When, other than under the Third Reich itself, did any major film producer ever release a movie in which the hero is a devoted Nazi? The answer, of course, is never. If any such picture ever hit the theaters, it would be universally denounced as an endorsement of totalitarianism.
But for some reason the same doesn’t apply to Communists. For decades, Hollywood has made one picture after another in which out-and-out Stalinists were treated sympathetically and their poisonous nature of their political beliefs was totally whitewashed. Oliver Stone’s Nixon (1995) depicted the atom spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg not as villains but as victims. Martin Ritt’s The Front (1976) portrayed the Hollywood Ten, all of them card-carrying members of the American Communist Party who were taking orders from Stalin, as First Amendment heroes. Four years ago, Jay Roach’s Trumbo essentially turned Cold War screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who in real life was a hard-core Stalinist ideologue, an unquestioning supporter of Uncle Joe’s Gulag, show trials, and summary executions – into something resembling a classical liberal.
The latest contribution this reprehensible genre is Red Joan, based on the life of Melita Stedman Norwood, a London woman whose secretarial job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association provided her with access to her country’s atomic secrets and who spent decades of her life working for the Soviet Union, first as an NKVD spy and later as a KGB agent. The material she passed to the Russians enabled them to produce a copy of the UK’s atom bomb. Incredibly, not until 1999 – years after the fall of the USSR – were her espionage activities publicly revealed. Also incredibly, she was never prosecuted for her crimes.
Directed by 79-year-old Trevor Nunn (who is best known for directing plays on Broadway and in the West End), written by Lindsay Shapero, and starring Sophie Cookson (as the young spy) and Dame Judi Dench (as her older self), the movie has been shown at film festivals and will be released in the US and UK on April 19. The key point is that Nunn treats this traitor – who in the film is given the name Joan Stanley – as a hero. And reviewers have bought into it. The Hollywood Reporter called Red Joan a “good old-fashioned British spy thriller …with a bewitching female heroine.” It’s “a story of ideals and self-sacrifice that seem impossibly distant in the current day and age.” While stealing state secrets, Joan “demonstrates nothing but courage, intelligence and furious conviction.” She is “every inch a heroine.” Variety, while finding the film “flat,”also had no problem describing Joan as a heroine.
In real life, Norwood was the daughter of Commies – a red-diaper baby – so loyalty to the Kremlin came naturally; the only motive she ever gave for having betrayed her country was that she was, indeed, a convinced Communist, full stop. Apparently in order to give Joan Stanley a more appealing motive for treason, Shapero’s script depicts her as being influenced, in her callow youth, by a couple of appealing friends who are German Jews and devout Communists – and whose Communism, as is so often the case in these movies, is equated with opposition to Hitler. At the same time, Shapero plays down her protagonist’s Communism, investing Joan with the belief (never held by the real Norwood) that giving atom secrets to Moscow would deprive the West of a monopoly on nukes and thus make the world safer.
After perusing the idiotic reviews in the Hollywood Reporter, Variety, and elsewhere, we were pleased to encounter at least one critic who had his head screwed on right. Calling the film “Operation Whitewash,” the Daily Mail‘s Guy Walters described it as “preposterously sympathetic to a woman who betrayed Britain’s most precious state secrets to Joseph Stalin, one of the most evil and murderous men who has ever lived.” Bingo. Why is this so hard for some people to see?