Trumbo (2015)


“The Hollywood One and a Half”

The obvious importance of Trumbo (Jay Roach, 2015), the new biopic of Hollywood Ten screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), is that it reminds us that our own chilling contemporary political climate is merely an echo of a movie we’ve regrettably had to sit through before. With Donald Trump doing a horrifying Adolf Hitler impersonation as the Republican Party’s front-runner for President of the United States, and the likes of Anne Neal (conservative activist masquerading as well-meaning reformer of public higher education) prowling around, a world of ideas in film and academia unfettered by anti-intellectual politics is as far out of our grasp in 2015 as it was in 1952.

Trumbo is an effective, interesting film for a surprisingly wide number of reasons beyond its well-known history lesson. It is attuned to that which Erving Goffman taught us in the 1950s, that all public life is performative. Dalton has to masquerade as other people once he is blacklisted in order to make even a meager living writing screenplays. But, the people around him also have to invent personae. In one of the film’s best scenes, an African-American inmate running the supply department at the prison pretends to only be able to sign his name with an X. When the left-liberal Trumbo offers to help him, the man demonstrates his mastery of the English language, and then angrily warns Trumbo against ever condescending to him again.

The film is also a terrific family melodrama. While seemingly peripheral to the plot, his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), a photographer, is often seen working in her darkroom while Trumbo writes his scripts in the bathtub. However, when he begins to crumble under the pressure of writing so many scripts so quickly, Cleo stands up for those closest to him whom he is brutalizing with neglectful frustration: “I will not let my children be raised by a bully.” The film dramatizes what political oppression does to real people: it destroys their lives in ways far beyond their control.

However, for all its strengths, Trumbo suffers the curse of all Hollywood bio-pics: it reduces a sociological phenomenon—in this case, the proclivity of right-wing America to scapegoat—to a story of individual perpetrators and lone heroes. For reasons of dramatic necessity, the film centers Trumbo, marginalizing the experiences of the other nine of the jailed First Amendment crusaders, relying on a composite character, Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) to stand in for the rest.

The consequences of this are regrettable. When I teach the anti-communist witch-hunting of the 1950s, I show Hollywood Ten filmmaker Herbert Biberman’s The Salt of the Earth (1954), one of the few truly great American films about social class. The fiction film, shot like a documentary, tells the story of a successful strike by zinc miners in New Mexico, arguing for the need for collective social action to stand up to big business. The filmmakers—Biberman, as well as his fellow blacklist victims, screenwriter Michael Wilson and producer Paul Jarrico—created a film decades ahead of its time, both pro-feminist and pro-Latino in its sensibilities. The IATSE union refused to work on the production, and indeed even allow it to be projected. Only a dozen theaters screened the film, out of some 10,000 in the United States.

Trumbo does a terrific job of showing the films Dalton Trumbo made: the film incorporates clips from his Oscar-winning Roman Holiday (William Wyler, 1953) and The Brave One (Irving Rapper, 1956), both of which won his aliases the Academy Award for best screenplay, not to mention Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960) and Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960), the films that finally publicly broke the blacklist. However, the other, sometimes more radical and/or interesting films, are not part of the story the film wants to tell, more than a bit ironic given that the cause of collective social action is at the core of the story of the Hollywood Ten.

Furthermore, the collapsing of a number of figures into the one character, Arlen Hird is not the only concession Trumbo makes to the ideologies of American individualism. In that standard rear-guard political move, the effects of the blacklist on people’s lives are soft-pedaled, naturalizing what is at its core a social corruption. In the film, Hird dies of lung cancer, a moralizing effect, not of the witchhunt, but of excessive smoking.

This is completely unnecessary, given the devastation of people’s health at the hands of blacklist culture. One of the most tragic of these stories is that of John Garfield, star of Abraham Polonsky’s Force of Evil (1948), a stunningly politically conscious gangster film: one character observes that there is little difference between the thugs running the illegal lottery and his filling station, where he charges more for gasoline than he pays for it. For him, big crooks and little thieves are cut from the same cloth. In the wake of the second congressional hearings in 1952, Garfield’s life was ruined. He refused to name names, and was dead of a heart attack by May 1952, a 39 year old in the prime of his life.

The climax of Trumbo is especially adept at foregrounding heroes and villains. When the studio heads threaten to back out of Spartacus because of a threatened American Legion protest, producer and star Kirk Douglas stands up for what’s right. When the suits say they’ll fire him, he dares them to go through the costly procedure of reshooting the entire film. Trumbo engages in a clever reworking of Dalton’s script’s metaphor of the communal protection of identity: when Crassus (Laurence Olivier) demands the slaves hand over Spartacus, all of the men stand up and declare, “I am Spartacus.” The actor Kirk Douglas takes a page out of his role; he tells the studio executives, “For better or worse, I am Spartacus.”

More problematically, the villains in Trumbo are even more reductive than the heroes. Hedda Hopper (played with great relish by Helen Mirren) is completely vicious in her manipulation of weak-willed Hollywood types, almost guaranteeing that anti-communist hysteria will paralyze those acting in good faith for the American values of freedom of expression. However, all is lost for her when President John F. Kennedy goes to see Spartacus in 1961 and calls it “a fine feature,” the film delivers an out of focus close-up on Hopper’s face, reveling in the fact that her time is over, that her demonic terrorism has come to an end.

Alas, such villainy is alive and well in contemporary Hollywood. Indeed, contrary to her time having ended, Hopper’s values of gossip mongering have completely triumphed. We now live in a world where TMZ and other such shady outlets spend 24 hours a day chasing titillating stories that will serve to keep people in line for fear of being publicly humiliated. For his part, Dalton Trumbo ends the film celebrating a 1970s in which he and his daughter “have [their] names back again.” However, that’s all they get back. The classical Hollywood world in which movies such as The Brave One—a small character study about a Mexican kid trying to save his beloved bull from a murderous matador—could win an Academy Award have long since passed us by.

–Walter Metz

Works Cited
Goffman, Erving. The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life. New York: Anchor Books, 1959.