Trumbo: two (count ’em, two) rational voices

trumbo1
Bryan Cranston as Dalton Trumbo

In all the reviews we’ve examined of Trumbo, the Bryan Cranston film that shamelessly whitewashes Stalinism and one of its loyal servants in mid-century America, screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, there are only a couple that don’t seem to be utterly befogged by dangerous delusions about the nature of Stalinism. One is by Alissa Wilkinson of Christianity Today, who writes in part:

Anyone attempting to understand how a person could reasonably claim to love America and also be committed to Communist ideals will not be helped here; the movie suggests that being a Communist is basically like being a little to the left of a liberal Democrat. The explanation is as caricatured as the opposition. In fact, the principles of Communism are literally reduced to an illustration Trumbo gives his young daughter, whilst she sits astride a horse, involving sharing a sandwich with a hungry schoolmate.

The film also gives us no reasonable or rational detractors on the other side; they’re all kind of the worst, which is more ironic given Trumbo’s early pleas to his friends to not demonize people they haven’t met.

trumbodouglas-xlarge
Cranston as Trumbo, with Kirk Douglas, played by Dean O’Gorman

Well done, Ms. Wilkinson. But you’re almost too kind to Trumbo; the guy who really takes off the gloves is Godfrey Cheshire, who, writing at the Roger Ebert site, calls it “another of those simplistic, made-to-order films about the Hollywood blacklist in which the blacklisted movie folks are all innocent, in every conceivable way.” Noting that the DVD jacket copy on a recent documentary about Trumbo described the screenwriter as having been “blacklisted by the House Un-American Committee,” Cheshire points out that “HUAC never blacklisted anyone”; it was the Hollywood studios (who now, in their movies, prefer to shift the guilt to Washington, D.C.) who blacklisted writers and others. Cheshire also notes that Trumbo omits

cranstonpromo
Cranston promoting the film

any sense of the utter contempt that Trumbo and his communist cohorts felt for liberals, who, in fact, they often regarded with more enmity than they did right-wingers. But that makes sense, of course. The communists were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy. A takeover by fascists would only hasten that result, they thought; successful liberalism could only impede it.

roachpromo
Director Jay Roach promoting the film

Of all these reviewers, in short, only a couple seem to grasp that you can’t make a First Amendment hero out a man who championed a dictatorship that executed people for expressing the wrong opinions. And you can’t teach a “vital lesson in democracy” (to quote Joe Neumaier’s blinkered Time review of Trumbo) by making a hero out of a man who was one of democracy’s sworn enemies.

Warren Beatty and Lenin’s “fight for freedom”

On Friday we harked back to 1981 and the movie Reds, Warren Beatty‘s nostalgic look at the beginnings of Soviet Communism. 

A trailer for the film makes it clear exactly how Beatty viewed it and how he wanted potential audiences to view it. “There is a movie,” reads the on-screen copy, “that challenges conservative politics[,] that shines a spotlight on the issues of our day.” It’s about “a nation’s right to freedom…about the fight for freedom.”

kerensky
Alexander Kerensky

Let’s break this down: this trailer is actually suggesting that the Bolsheviks’ October Revolution of 1917 – which overthrew the democratic government under Alexander Kerensky that had been installed after the February Revolution of 1917 and replaced it with a totalitarian regime – was a step forward for freedom. Yes, the Bolshevik Revolution, which led to decades of oppression, terror, forced collectivization, show trials, political murders, genocide in the Ukraine, the Gulag, and much else. Furthermore, the trailer equates the Kerensky government with American conservatives circa 1981 (the year, of course, that Ronald Reagan became president), and implies that both are enemies of freedom; meanwhile it likens the Bolsheviks to the American Democratic Party of 1981, and suggests that both are heroes of freedom.  

big-the-dorchester-hotel-london-07
Dorchester Hotel, London

Beatty began writing Reds in 1976 with Marxist playwright Trevor Griffiths. They worked together on their screenplay celebrating Communism during months-long stints at the luxurious Carlyle Hotel in New York, the Dorchester in London (described by Wikipedia as “one of the world’s most prestigious and expensive hotels”), and the glamorous Plaza Athénée in Paris. Sometimes, while working in Paris, they were helped out on the script by Elaine May, who flew in and out of New York on the Concorde. There’s no record that any of them saw the irony in any of this. 

redsposterCertainly the irony seems lost on Peter Biskind, author of an in-depth Vanity Fair article about the making of Reds. Biskind makes it clear that he finds the “idealism” of the film’s hero, John Reed, praiseworthy, and he expresses regret that this “idealism…seems even more alien today than it did in 1981, given the current cynicism about politics.” He actually writes the following about Reed (played by Beatty) and his girlfriend and fellow Communist, Louise Bryant (Diane Keaton): “More than just lovers, more than just revolutionaries, they have made political lives, lived their politics, and Reds is above all a tribute to that.” At least the late Roger Ebert picked up on the irony, noticing in his review that the copyright statement at the end of this film about a man who hated millionaires reads “Copyright MCMLXXXI Barclays Mercantile Industrial Finance Limited.” Beatty, for his part, appeared, by the time he won the Oscar for Best Director, to have recognized the contradictions at the heart of his own project, giving a nod in his acceptance speech to the bigwigs at Paramount and its then parent company, Gulf + Western, for their “decision, taken in the great capitalistic tower of Gulf + Western, to finance a three-and-a-half hour romance which attempts to reveal for the first time just something of the beginnings of American socialism and American communism.”

gulag
Film rights, anyone?

Don’t get us wrong. Reds is a terrific piece of filmmaking – excellently acted and directed, with splendid production design, stirring set pieces, a lucidly told and fast-paced story about memorable characters. That’s precisely the problem. Beatty made a hero out of America’s most prominent early enthusiast for the Russian Revolution, and did a remarkably effective job of making that useful stooge’s blind devotion to a cruel and monstrous tyranny look praiseworthy, exciting, and supremely romantic. One can only be sorry that Beatty was moved to make a film about an ardent fan of Boshevism rather than about any one of its millions of victims. When, one wonders, will Tinseltown release a movie on the scale of Reds about the Gulag? 

Redford: romanticizing Che

the-motorcycle-diaries2We’ve just finished surveying some of Robert Redford‘s celluloid agitprop. On The Milagro Beanfield War, Lions for Lambs, and The Company You Keep, he was director; on the 2004 film Motorcycle Diaries, directed by Walter Salles from José Rivera’s script and based on Che Guevara’s memoir of his youthful travels around South America, Redford served as producer. Depicting Che as a sensitive charmer, the film purported to depict the process by which he developed the supposedly noble political “convictions” that ended up making him a hero to millions. In other words, the picture entirely ignored Guevara the cold-blooded, pathological mass murderer and firmly endorsed the thoroughly twisted popular image that led him to become the face on a million T-shirts.

Enthusiastic but clueless critics used words like “charming” and “poetic” to describe the Che movie; A.O. Scott of the New York Times praised it as “a lyrical exploration of the sensations and perceptions from which a political understanding of the world emerges”; with apparent approval, he stated that the film’s closing scenes depicted Che “as a quasi-holy figure, turning away from the corruptions of the world toward a higher purpose.” Some understanding! Some purpose!

che-gun
The real Che

At least Roger Ebert didn’t join in the cheering. “Che Guevara,” he wrote, “makes a convenient folk hero for those who have not looked very closely into his actual philosophy, which was repressive and authoritarian….He said he loved the people but he did not love their freedom of speech, their freedom to dissent, or their civil liberties. Cuba has turned out more or less as he would have wanted it to.” Jessica Winter of The Village Voice agreed, noting that the film “politely overlook[ed]” Che’s “totalitarian leanings” and served up hackneyed images of “noble” peasants and “plucky lepers” who in shot after shot “face the camera in a still life of heroic, art-directed suffering.” (The Milagro Beanfield Wars does exactly the same thing.) While the filmmakers didn’t so much as hint that its glamorous hero would go on to become a psychopathic killing machine, they did manage to slam the CIA in the closing credits.

aleida_guevara
Aleida Guevara

In January 2004, Redford went to Cuba to screen The Motorcycle Diaries for Che’s widow, Aleida, and their children. Aleida pronounced it “excellent.” While Redford was there, Fidel Castro dropped in to see him at the Hotel Nacional. It wasn’t their first meeting: the movie star and the dictator had gone scuba-diving together 16 years earlier, and according to some reports, which described them as “friends,” had met several times – a fact that didn’t exactly endear Redford to the Cuban exile community in the U.S.

And what’s Redford’s latest? We’ll talk about that one next time.