Trumbo crosses the pond

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Bryan Cranston as Trumbo

Last week, we examined reviews of the new movie Trumbo, which purports to tell the story of Dalton Trumbo, the blacklisted screenwriter of films like Spartacus and Roman Holiday. Critic after critic, we noted, failed to challenge Trumbo‘s benign view of what it means to be a Communist.

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John Goodman in Trumbo

Perhaps the most egregrious offender was veteran showbiz scribe Rex Reed, who despite having lived through Stalinism apparently believes that Communism is somehow not incompatible with democracy. On Friday we focused on a couple of prominent reviewers who actually got it right – Godfrey Cheshire, for example, who points out that Communists like Trumbo “were hoping for a revolution to overthrow American democracy.”

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Helen Mirren in Trumbo

As it happens, a postscript is in order. Trumbo, which opened in the U.S. on November 25, didn’t open in the U.K. and Ireland until this past Friday. And several of the notices in major publications on the British isles, gratifyingly, have proven to be far better informed than the reviews in places like Time and the Boston Globe and the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

Writing in the Mirror, David Edwards mocked a scene in which Trumbo explains his politics to his young daughter by telling her “that Communism is the same thing as sharing her packed lunch with a classmate who has nothing to eat.” This scene, Edwards charged,

suggests that we, the viewers, are as naive and uncomprehending as a six year old. And in its attempt to make Trumbo a misunderstood hero, any mention of his support for Joseph Stalin and other murderous dictators is deliberately but jarringly avoided. Instead we’re given a portrait of a man of unimpeachable integrity whose biggest fault is boozing in the bathtub and ignoring his family.

Donald Clarke, in the Irish Times, makes the same point. The film, he complains, doesn’t give us “any convincing investigation of Trumbo’s politics,” instead portraying him “as as a democratic socialist in the mode of Bernie Sanders.” All this, says Clarke, reflects a “gutlessness…that suggests the mainstream is still not quite comfortable with the red meat of radical politics.”

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Diane Lane and Cranston in Trumbo

The Economist‘s anonymous critic noted that despite the film’s overblown rhetoric “about the blacklist years being ‘a time of fear’ and ‘evil,’” there’s barely a glimpse of any of this in the picture itself:

Even after being blacklisted, the hero’s main complaint is that he is in such great demand that he is too busy to celebrate his daughter’s birthday….At his lowest ebb, he pockets $12,000 for three days’ script-doctoring, most of which he does in the bath while sipping Scotch. Not much of a martyr. Then comes the farcical moment when Kirk Douglas and Otto Preminger bump into each other on his front porch as they beg him to work on Spartacus and Exodus. Trumbo is less an indictment of Hollywood’s cowardice than a jobbing screenwriter’s wildest fantasy.

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Goodman, Mirren, and Cranston at Trumbo premiere

Even Peter Bradshaw of the left-wing Guardian called the film on its Communist apologetics. While Bradshaw felt that Trumbo‘s story “needed to be told,” he still criticized it for failing “to challenge Trumbo’s unrepentant communism, a culpable naivety in the light of the gulags.” (Bradshaw also suggested, interestingly, that a biopic about actor Edward G. Robinson or director Elia Kazan, both of whom “named names” to the House Un-American Activities Committee, would have been more of a challenging choice.)

The readiness of many stateside reviewers of Trumbo to buy into its whitewashing of Communism remains depressing. But it’s heartening to know that at least some film critics know better.

Dalton Trumbo: sorry, no hero

Yesterday we started in on Trumbo, the new movie, directed by Jay Roach, that makes a hero out of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (1905-76). As we’ve already said, Trumbo was no hero. Here, very briefly, is why.

johnnyIn the 1930s, Trumbo was a staunch anti-fascist who supported the Loyalist struggle in Spain and who hoped for a united Western front against Hitler. When the Soviets and Germans became allies in August 1939, Trumbo, in perfect accord with the Kremlin line, dropped his disdain for Nazis down the memory hole and transformed himself into an ardent pacifist – as reflected in his novel Johnny Got His Gun, which depicted war (for any cause) as the ultimate evil. Then, in June 1941, when Hitler invaded the USSR, Trumbo’s pacifism disappeared instantly; he called for the U.S. to enter the war on the Soviet side and, after Pearl Harbor, banged out rah-rah war films such as A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds over Tokyo.

In short, what mattered to him throughout was not the well-being of his own country or the cause of freedom, but the survival of Stalinism – period.

Poster - Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo_02His devotion to the Soviet Union continued after the war. He despised Churchill’s 1946 “Iron Curtain” speech, which he described as a vile expression of fascism. In 1950, when the Communists in North Korea attacked the South, he took the side of the aggressors.

During the 1950s, because of the blacklist, he was obliged to write scripts under fake names or friends’ names; two of them, for Roman Holiday (1954) and The Brave One (1957), won Oscars. In 1960, when Kirk Douglas’s Spartacus and Otto Preminger’s Exodus were released, both carrying his screenwriting credit, the blacklist was finally broken.

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Dalton Trumbo and his wife, Cleo, at the 1947 HUAC hearings

We’re not here to defend the blacklist. Some of those whose careers it damaged weren’t Communists at all. But what about the Communists, such as Trumbo? Was a House committee the proper venue in which to address their nefarious activity? Was an industry blacklist a defensible response to it? Tough questions; honorable people can disagree. But certain facts are beyond doubt. As Allan H. Ryskind’s book Hollywood Traitors makes clear, card-carrying Party members were, in a very real sense, active agents of an unfriendly and totalitarian foreign power. In the years prior to the institution of the blacklist, they’d done their best – both in the unions and in the studios themselves – to maximize their own power in the film industry, neutralize their ideological opponents, and use American motion pictures, to the greatest practicable extent, as vehicles for Communist propaganda. In other words, they tried to do to their non-Communist colleagues essentially what HUAC ended up doing to them.

More tomorrow.