Dalton Trumbo Died for Your Sins
Hero worship makes for a boring film.
Director Jay Roach’s 2015 film Trumbo is hagiography. It worships its main character, communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo. This is no surprise; Roach made the 2012 HBO film Game Change, a vicious hit job on Sarah Palin. Of Roach’s 2008 film Recount, about the contested 2000 presidential election, James A. Baker said, “I don’t think I was as ruthless as the movie portrays me, and I know [former Secretary of State Warren Christopher] was not as wimpish as it makes him appear.” Roach, in short, has a history of making slanted political films.
Art makes demands, and if you don’t meet them, you make bad art. For a character to be compelling, he has to have flaws, and he has to face opponents who are every bit as three-dimensional as he is. Roach’s Trumbo is Santa Claus crossed with Abe Lincoln. Being a member of the Communist Party is unquestionably right; being concerned about communism’s influence is a silly fixation of the less evolved. But Trumbo is, like its hero, all talk no action. All tension is bled from confrontation scenes. Trumbo’s bon mots pack a Chuck-Norris wallop; Trumbo speaks and his interlocutor is reduced to gape-mouthed silence and paralysis. Trumbo locuta; causa finita est – Trumbo has spoken; the matter is finished. This stacked deck makes for a snooze-fest.
I’m ready to be wowed by any brilliant images that move onscreen, regardless of their ideology. I am Cuba, a communist propaganda film, Triumph of the Will, a Nazi propaganda film, and The Pianist, a film made by a child rapist, are all great movies. When I sat down to watch Trumbo, I was hoping for a fun re-animation of Golden Age Hollywood, vintage cars and fifties fabrics I could almost feel. Dalton Trumbo’s politics were indifferent to movie-goer me. But Trumbo violates the first commandment of any art: Thou Shalt Not Bore.
Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is the pater familias of a loving family, and the alpha male of his own rat pack of fellow Hollywood professionals who all revere him. He lives on a secluded, private lake. His exquisitely beautiful wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and loving children fill his days with joy.
The villain of the piece, and the face and voice of anti-communism, is gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, Cruella De Vil’s evil twin. She’s so over-the-top that she’s never believable, even though she’s played by Helen Mirren. John Wayne (David James Elliott) is also on hand. The real Wayne was nothing if not an iconic, galvanic screen presence; Wayne was an A-list star in five decades. Trumbo’s John Wayne is merely a big, dumb, charisma-free lug who talks funny. Trumbo “defeats” Wayne by mentioning that he, Wayne, never served in the armed forces. Trumbo and Wayne’s verbal sparring match is not a scintillating exploration of the issues at play. It’s merely childish nyah nyah nyah. It’s also a distortion. Wayne wanted to serve in the military, but for complicated health and professional reasons, he could not. He served, rather, as an inspirational artist. Surely if Dalton Trumbo and filmmaker Roach respected art, they would respect what Wayne did for his country.
Trumbo’s daughter Nikola asks him if he is a communist. We are to feel sad because sweet little pigtailed Nikola has heard people say mean things about her daddy. He, ever wise, dimple-cheeked and twinkly-eyed, asks what would happen if she went to school with a big, fat ham sandwich for lunch and a schoolmate had none. She says she would share. That’s communism, Trumbo instructs. Actually, no, it’s not. It’s Biblical. But too many filmgoers were not taught any more about communism or the Bible than Nikola Trumbo, and they will fall for this scene.
Fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) challenges Trumbo. Hird’s challenge is the closest the film comes to a real confrontation; even so it is mismatched and aborted. Louis C.K. is not a sympathetic actor. In this film, he comes across as a curmudgeon and slob who continues to smoke himself to death after losing one lung to cancer. Hird tells Trumbo that he doesn’t believe Trumbo’s communism because he, Trumbo, lives on a private lake. Trumbo gives Hird an avuncular “there there, tut tut” style speech that dodges Hird’s real questions. The viewer is unsatisfied. In fact Trumbo is surrounded by people with no private lake, and no ham sandwich. That he keeps his lake private, and that he sends his daughter to school with her own, private ham sandwich reveals him to be a hypocrite. The viewer knows this, even if the film thinks it can disguise it by not taking Hird’s point to its logical conclusion.
There is much talk. The speakers are screenwriters and actors living glitteringly privileged lives in what, in the direct aftermath of WW II, was certainly the luckiest country on earth. The viewer waits impatiently for the real action – the viewer waits for real risk, for something to matter. The viewer wants some tension, rather than just “I’m a famous film star and I have sold one of my priceless Van Gogh paintings to pay off my lawyer.”
As a moviegoer fighting off boredom, I really wanted to see Trumbo’s sparring with the HUAC presented as a contest for the ages. It was not. We know he’s not going to suffer all that much; we know the HUAC was not the evil or all-powerful entity the filmmakers want us to believe it was. Trumbo acts like a shifty, self-protective jerk, not like the hero the movie’s onscreen texts keep insisting he was.
“Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?” Trumbo attempts to sidestep the question, and like anyone under oath and under subpoena avoiding a question, he pays a price. The film never makes clear for me why Trumbo was so opposed to answering that question. Historians know why; Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten were taking orders from the Communist Party. Ron Radosh quotes Trumbo later admitting that he was participating “in a circus orchestrated by CP lawyers, all to save [ourselves] from punishment.” A moviegoer shouldn’t have to turn to Ron Radosh after watching a film to understand the main character’s motivation. Trumbo fails as storytelling not just because it doesn’t tell the truth. It doesn’t even bother to weave together a coherent lie.
Trumbo is sent to prison for contempt of Congress. An African American inmate threatens and curses him as a traitor. This same inmate is shown greatly enjoying a pro-American John Wayne movie. Trumbo’s eyebrows rise sardonically, but he says nothing. The suggestion is that proletarian Americans, white and black, are idiots bamboozled by propaganda into betraying their class interests. The film lacks the courage to state this overtly; the superior viewer’s eyebrows are meant to rise in comradely consensus with Trumbo’s. If the film had spelled out this point overtly, the viewer might take the thought to its logical conclusion: Trumbo, just like the John Wayne movie within it, is just more Hollywood propaganda, attempting to brainwash the viewer, whose role is to be putty in the filmmaker’s hands.
After his prison stint, Trumbo sells his ranch and moves to a lovely suburban home. We are meant to pity him because he now must swim in a pool, not a private lake. The utter hypocrisy of a movie championing a communist while simultaneously wringing pity from its proletarian audience for a man who trades a private lake for a suburban swimming pool is apparently lost on the filmmakers.
Trumbo sets up a cottage industry. He and other blacklisted writers crank out scripts under assumed names. Trumbo is repeatedly shown writing while soaking in a bathtub, smoking with a cigarette holder, drinking booze and popping Benzedrine. Trumbo manages to write two Academy-Award-winning films, Roman Holiday and The Brave One. John Goodman stars as Frank King, a grade-z filmmaker who hires Trumbo to write schlock. When anti-communists try to interfere with King’s employ of Trumbo, King pulls out a baseball bat, smashes his own office, and promises the anti-communist activist, “I make movies for money and pussy. I am getting both. If you interfere, this baseball bat is the last thing you will ever see.”
Hedda Hopper is livid. She insists that Hollywood shut off the flow of scripts by blacklisted writers. She threatens one of Hollywood’s most formidable powerbrokers, M-G-M chief Louis B. Mayer. She will reveal to America that he is Jewish, as are the heads of many of the other studios.
There are three problems with this scene. First, it is a rip-off from the 1999 HBO film RKO 281. In that film, Hedda Hopper, Louella Parsons, and William Randolph Hearst similarly threaten studio bosses. The scenes play in the exact same key, beginning with cozy familiarity in a studio executive’s office and ending with a contemptuous threat. I guess Trumbo’s screenwriter, John McNamara’s, attitude is that “property is theft” and that he can take what he wants, including another screenwriter’s scene.
There’s another problem with the scene. Did HUAC-era Americans really not realize that people like Sam Goldwyn and Edward G. Robinson were Jewish? Radio star Father Charles Coughlin hammered at “Jewish” Hollywood in the 1930s, as did Henry Ford. Gentleman’s Agreement had come out in 1947.
In any case, there’s a more serious problem. The Soviet system Trumbo allied himself with was murderously anti-Semitic. The film never so much as alludes to that. The film hides Soviet persecution of Jews but depicts American anti-communists as rabid anti-Semites. This is a brutally cynical manipulation of the audience.
Nikola Trumbo (Elle Fanning is the older Niki) grows up; she and her father lock horns. The source of tension between Trumbo and his family is that he works too hard. He earns too much money. He is too dedicated. He is making them too secure. And he never has time to relax, and he drives to his daughter’s civil rights meeting to give her a ride home. At the end of a completely flat father-daughter confrontation scene, the previously bratty, teenage Nikola melts in the great man’s presence and admits that she wants to be just like her heroic dad. Trumbo, at work and at home, is a man among men.
Trumbo is shown offering his front fifty percent of the fee for a script. The front asks for only ten percent. Trumbo is also shown paying back Edward G. Robinson for the money he had donated to the legal defense of Hollywood communists. What a guy!
The arrival of director Otto Preminger pumps some life into this lifeless movie. Preminger throws his weight around in a vaguely diabolic, certainly Teutonic way. Christian Berkel, who plays Preminger, is a German actor who speaks English beautifully. In Trumbo, though, Berkel adopts a bizarrely fake-sounding accent. There’s something symptomatic about the inauthenticity of Trumbo that it required a German actor to adopt a ridiculously counterfeit German accent to play a German-speaking director. Dean O’Gorman fares much better as film star Kirk Douglas. Preminger and Douglas announce publicly that Trumbo wrote the scripts for their films Exodus and Spartacus. President John F. Kennedy crosses an American Legion picket line to see a Trumbo film; the blacklist is broken; Hedda Hopper cries a single tear. The End.
Trumbo depicts Hollywood as revolving around Dalton Trumbo. But Hollywood is notoriously not a writer’s town. F. Scott Fitzgerald, the author of the great American novel, drank himself to premature death in Hollywood after being fired from uncredited work on Gone with the Wind. Hollywood writers sold their intellectual property and more powerful producers, directors and stars controlled rewrites. Writers’ names might or might not appear on their own work. As Raymond Chandler said, in Hollywood “the writer is revealed in his ultimate corruption. He asks no praise, because his praise comes to him in the form of a salary check. In Hollywood the average writer is not young, not honest, not brave, and a bit overdressed.”
Kirk Douglas, now 98, remembers that Trumbo worked very quickly and didn’t hesitate to throw out scenes that his superiors objected to. Churning out scenes at rapid-fire pace and a willingness to jettison scenes when demanded by your paymaster to do so is not the behavior of an artist, it’s the behavior of a hack. Trumbo’s writing was good but it does not elevate him to the status of a scriptwriter like Joseph Mankiewicz, Billy Wilder, Preston Sturges or Ruth Gordon and Garson Kanin.
The bigger lie, of course, is the film’s treatment of communism. Soviet communism murdered tens of millions of innocent human beings. The USSR did have spies active in the US. They did do damage. Dalton Trumbo did obey party dictates to insert communist material into scripts. Concerned Americans had very good reasons to want to know from influential cultural leaders “Are you now or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”
Hollywood’s communists and former communists were not sent to a Gulag. They lost jobs. They got other jobs. Some, like Elia Kazan and Edward G. Robinson, went on to further successes. That really isn’t the life-or-death struggle the makers of endless blacklist films want it to be.
When leftists have been in power, they, too, have eliminated their perceived ideological opponents from earning a living. Trumbo himself admitted to participating in the crushing of authors and works that did not agree with his ideology. Today, left-wingers on college campuses have all but eliminated anyone to their right from consideration for tenure-track employment. Facts like these would be welcome in any deep, rich, complex treatment of the life of a Dalton Trumbo. But Trumbo is not a rich film. It is simpleminded and black and white.
There’s a scene I would love to see in the next Trumbo film. Someone asks him, “You say that conscience is primary to you, not money. Well, good then. Risk losing Hollywood money. Live for your conscience. You say that communism is the ideal path for humanity, and that it is an historical inevitability. Again, good. Openly write communist material. Stop the charade. Others – both on the right and on the left – openly live what they believe. Why not you?” I’d need to hear the answer a Dalton Trumbo would supply to that question to find any value in any future blacklist film. Be assured, there will be more. Such a film might actually make me feel some sympathy for Trumbo. This film did not.