Reviewing Trumbo

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Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

Directed by Jay Roach and written by John McNamara, the movie Trumbo came out last November to widespread acclaim – especially for Bryan Cranston‘s performance as blacklisted Hollwood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.  Cranston is nominated for an Oscar; both he and Helen Mirren, who plays gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, were nominated for Golden Globes.

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The real Dalton Trumbo

When Trumbo first came out, we spent a few days on this site pondering, and questioning, the way it presents its protagonist. As we noted at the time, Trumbo and other members of the so-called Hollywood Ten were all Communists. Trumbo, like virtually every other Hollywood movie ever made about the blacklist, tries to pretend that being a Communist was (or is) pretty much the same as being a Democrat or a liberal. Not really. Trumbo and his friends were devotees and disciples of an extremely illiberal fella named Joseph Stalin. They were his devotees and disciples in precisely the same way that Nazis were devotees and disciples of another fella named Adolf Hitler. Stalin, like Hitler, was a totalitarian dictator. The only substantial difference between them was that Stalin reigned much longer and killed a lot more people.

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Joe Neumaier

It’s utterly ridiculous to have to make these obvious points. Any middle-school student should know all this stuff, and feel insulted at any suggestion that they don’t. But as the reviews of Trumbo make clear, many people in positions of influence are totally clueless about the reality of Communism. One movie reviewer after another has hailed Trumbo as (to quote Joe Neumaier in Time) a “vital lesson in democracy,” and its Communist protagonist as nothing less than a hero of democracy. Indeed, many of the reviewers who haven’t praised Trumbo have still praised Trumbo. Or, more specifically, praised his “ideals.”

Here, for example, is Joanna Connors in the Cleveland Plain Dealer: “Besides being a gifted writer he was an outspoken champion of workers’ rights and socialist ideals.” This about a man who defended the Gulag, the Nazi-Soviet Pact, the Moscow show trials – in short, every monstrous crime against humanity Stalin ever committed.

In the New Orleans Times-Picayune, Mike Scott laments that Communist is “still a dirty word today.” And in the Toronto Star, Peter Howell actually calls Trumbo “a principled member of the Communist Party.” (Yes, he was devoted to the “principles” of the Communist Party in the same way that Hitler was devoted to the “principles” of Nazism.) Howell also refers to “the rebellious Hollywood Ten,” as if they were a bunch of admirably iconoclastic individuals rather than a group of lockstep ideological fanatics taking orders from a mass-murdering foreign government.

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Cranston, with Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper

One baffling feature of many of the reviews of Trumbo is that even as they acknowledge that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow Communist screenwriters were Communists, they use the term “Red Scare,” which implies that Trumbo & co.’s Communism existed only in the heated imaginations of Hedda Hopper, John Wayne, and others – whose principled anti-Communism the movie treats with nothing but vicious mockery, even as it treats D.T.’s Communism with respect and admiration. 

“Trumbo,” writes Ty Burr in the Boston Globe, “brings what Lillian Hellman dubbed ‘scoundrel time’ into sharp relief.” Burr’s reference to Hellman and to Scoundrel Time, one of that horrible old Stalinist’s notoriously mendacious “memoirs,” leads us to wonder whether Burr knows anything whatsoever about Hellman, one of the great moral scoundrels in American literary history, or, more broadly, about American Stalinism. Burr refers to the writers and directors who came to be demonized as the Hollywood Ten.” No, they weren’t “demonized”: they were identified as Communists – as men who had sworn to help bring down American democracy in the service of murderous totalitarianism – and that was precisely what they were. Yet Burr buys the film’s attempt to sell them as heroes, and buys its presentation of John Wayne and other anti-Communists as “ogre[s].”

More to come.

Trumpeting Trumbo

truth3Just a few weeks ago, we discussed the new movie Truth, which turned the truth about the 2004 Rathergate scandal on its head. In real life, CBS anchorman Dan Rather and news producer Mary Mapes were so eager to damage George W. Bush’s re-election prospects with a damaging story about his National Guard service that they were prepared to use obviously fake documents to try to support their otherwise unsupported case; in the film, Rather (Robert Redford) and Mapes (Cate Blanchett) are presented as heroic truth-tellers brought down by craven CBS executives fearful of antagonizing the Bush White House.

trumboNow Tinseltown has brought us yet another mammoth distortion of history. Directed by Jay Roach from a script by John McNamara, and starring Breaking Bad‘s Bryan Cranston in the title role, Trumbo purports to tell the story of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76), who in 1947 was named one of the “Hollywood Ten” – a group of directors and screenwriters who were cited for contempt of Congress for refusing to tell the House Un-American Activities Committee whether or not they were Communists. The Hollywood Ten were blacklisted – i.e., denied work in the film industry – as were dozens of their colleagues.

In recent decades, Hollywood has churned out innumerable films about the blacklist. The premise is always the same: the men and women of the blacklist were free-speech martyrs and victims of tyranny. There are several things that are rarely if ever mentioned in these films. For example, all of the Hollywood Ten were members of the American Communist Party. That party, in turn, was a willing, devoted instrument of the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. The man at the top of that Party was Josef Stalin, a totalitarian dictator who was responsible for even more deaths than Hitler.

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The real-life Dalton Trumbo

It shouldn’t be necessary to remind anyone who Stalin was and what he did. But the fact is that Dalton Trumbo and his fellow members of the Hollywood Ten were Stalin’s devoted acolytes. No matter what he did, they refused to criticize him. Whatever shifts in policy he made, they went along with him blindly. This hasn’t kept them from being lionized as champions of liberty.

Take Trumbo. The new Jay Roach movie is far from the first work to celebrate him. Trumbo’s son Christopher wrote a play, Trumbo: Red, White and Blacklisted, which was staged with such actors as Paul Newman, Alec Baldwin, and Steve Martin. Christopher Trumbo also directed a 2008 documentary, Trumbo, in which Michael Douglas, Kirk Douglas, Dustin Hoffman, and other Hollywood luminaries agreed that Trumbo was both a victim and a hero.

htThe facts tell otherwise. In an illuminating new book, Hollywood Traitors, Allan H. Ryskind spells them out. Far from being the fun, quirky “independent spirit” depicted by his apologists – and, we gather, by Roach’s movie – Trumbo was a slavish disciple of the tyrant in the Kremlin.

“[F]ew of the Hollywood writers served Stalin so faithfully,” says Ryskind, who, in addition to studying FBI and HUAC documents, has pored over Trumbo’s private papers. They reveal an unwavering pattern of absolute loyalty to Stalin and to Communism, and an utter indifference to the fate of his own country or of human freedom.

Details tomorrow.