Trumbo full movie review - Hagiography of blacklisted screenwriter fails to show his darker side
The dictionary tells us that a hagiography is any biography that idealizes or idolizes its subject. By definition, a hagiography is an inferior form of literature because it focuses on only the purported good side of its subject?those looking for any kind of nuance will inevitably be disappointed.
As director Jay Roach and his scenarists would have it, Dalton Trumbo, the acclaimed Hollywood screenwriter, was a veritable saint for sticking to his conscience and not naming names before HUAC (House of Un-American Activities Committee) in 1947.
Trumbo basically follows the facts of what happened to him after he was blacklisted: a 10 month stint in a Federal prison for contempt of Congress; supporting himself by writing and/or editing screenplays under pseudonyms; winning two Academy Awards for best screenplay while concealing his identity; becoming addicted to prescription medication in order to be able to churn out such a voluminous amount of work; the difficulties he had with his wife and children due to the slavish devotion to his work; and his eventual triumph over the blacklist after director Otto Preminger and actor Kirk Douglas agree to give him credit as screenwriter for their movies.
There is really only one scene in the film (the best one!) which suggests maybe Trumbo wasn't the saint that most of liberal America now believes him to be. That scene involves the meeting between famed actor Edward G. Robinson and Trumbo after Robinson has named names before HUAC. Robinson exposes Trumbo's self-righteousness after pointing out that Trumbo could still support himself by writing under other peoples' names, while he, as an actor, had no anonymity and hence had no choice but to "name names."
Director Roach would like us to believe that Trumbo was a political innocent. The only scene where he deals with Trumbo's political beliefs is when he has Trumbo speaking with his young daughter about Communism while horseback riding. Trumbo's definition is basically that Communism has to do with "sharing" and hence helping others.
The reality of Trumbo's political beliefs is much more complex than what director Roach and his crew let on here. Robert Radosh, in his most informative article, "Red Star Falling: The Trumbo Train Wreck," informs that Trumbo, due to his support of Stalin, was an isolationist before the war. His anti-war novel, "Johnny Got His Gun," was published in the Daily Worker but after the dissolution of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1941, Trumbo immediately had the book withdrawn from circulation. He even went to the FBI, as Radosh tells us, and gave them the names of people who had inquired about the book. (Later of course Trumbo had no problem condemning those who named names before HUAC.)
Trumbo insisted that he was motivated by free speech but according to Radosh, he "used his power in the film community to prevent proposed anti-Communist films from being made." He called Stalin "one of the democratic leaders of the world," and tried to undermine a film based on Trotsky's biography of Stalin as well as other anti-Communist films which he considered "untrue and reactionary."
Radosh has no illusions about HUAC's tactics but also decries the Hollywood Ten's true political character. Writing in 1991 in the American Spectator, Radosh reviewed the newly released film about the blacklist, "Guilty by Suspicion": "HUAC's hearings were clearly punitive--their 1951 investigations turned up nothing, and were meant to force recalcitrant witnesses to engage in a humiliating game of contrition by offering the Committee names it already had. Only the contrite could gain absolution, and the proof was to confess one's sins. But in reality, most of those brought before HUAC were ardent Stalinists or fellow travelers, whose own record of politics was hardly that of moral propriety. They were unfairly treated and punished, but they were not without their own degree of sin."
Radosh quotes the left-leaning author Larry Ceplair from his book "The Inquisition in Hollywood," about the Hollywood Ten and their ilk who "defended the Stalinist regime, accepted the Comintern's policies and about-faces, and criticized enemies and allies alike with infuriating self-righteousness, superiority, and selective memory which eventually alienated all but the staunchest fellow travelers."
For those who would argue that Trumbo's views had evolved after World War II, Allan Ryskind writing in the NY Post reminds us that he was still an unrepentant Stalinist even at the time the Korean War broke out. Ryskind informs, "Channeling his inner Stalin, he also wrote a screenplay ? egged on by some of his Hollywood Ten friends ? in which the major character, Catherine Bonham, reveals her ardent attachment to North Korea. Bonham insists Kim's country is a 'model' Asian nation and is fighting for its freedom 'just as we had to fight for our own independence in 1776.'"
Trumbo quit the Communist Party in 1956. While working on a book about the blacklist, Robert Radosh found an unpublished 1958 letter by Trumbo. In it he finally admits that "the Ten did not "perform historic deeds," but took part "in a circus orchestrated by Communist Party lawyers, all to save ourselves from punishment." Trumbo went even further: "They lived in the United States, not Stalin's U.S.S.R., and should have openly proclaimed their views and membership so that the American people could judge them for what they believed."
In his speech to the Screen Writer's Guild in 1970, Trumbo claimed no one was without sin during the days of the blacklist. It's a shame that this new biopic failed to provide an ample catalog of Trumbo's own sins. While Bryan Cranston does a fine job in depicting one side of Trumbo as the lovable curmudgeon, his more complex political views along with those of his "fellow travelers," are whitewashed and soft-pedaled. The despicable acts of HUAC and their supporters don't excuse perfidy on the left as well, which Trumbo only owned up to in his later days and in limited fashion.