Trumbo

Trumbo (2007) movie poster

(2007) dir. Peter Askin
viewed: 09/27/09

Trumbo is a documentary about Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, adapted to an extent from a theatrical piece written by his son Christopher Trumbo and heavily populated with excerpts from letters that he wrote to various people throughout his life.  The film’s approach includes several semi-dramatic readings of these letters by a number of Hollywood actors of the present day including Liam Neeson, Paul Giamatti, Donald Sutherland, Joan Allen, and Michael Douglas to name a few, as well as a few interviews with people who knew him privately and professionally.  Overall, the approach seems flawed and choppy, but what cannot be detracted from is the power and integrity of perhaps the greatest and most important writer who suffered from the Hollywood Blacklist during the Red Scare in the 1940’s – 1960’s as a result of persecution from the House of Un-American Activities Commission (HUAC).

Frankly, I think if you are looking to persecute a group of people, writers are a dangerous bunch.  They are by nature well-spoken and may leave behind such eloquent and articulate treatises that will damn you unendingly unless you had any right to condemn them.  And frankly, history is the judge, and though history is theoretically “written by the winners”, history does allow for perspective and re-analysis.  It’s all we really have, the opportunity to parse and dissect and understand what happened, separated from the illusions, the lies, the heat and passions of the times, and ultimately, as flawed as it still is, is much more than is often known in the time.

And history says to Sen. Joseph McCarthy: “You were despicable.”

For those who aren’t familiar with the Hollywood blacklist and the McCarthy hearings that triggered the blacklist, the seeking to weed-out America of “Communists” and the fear and hatred and ruining of people, well this film isn’t necessarily a primer on the subject but you should read at least the Wikipedia entry on the topic (I shan’t belabor my own full interpretation of history here).  But I think it’s fair to say that “McCarthyism” and “the Red Scare” have come to be equated with some of the most loathsome aspects of fear-mongering in the USA ever and are parallels, much as Nazi-ism or Hitler is to “pure evil” (although thinking through recent usage of even those more broadly known elements in comparison to Barack Obama, maybe the average citizen isn’t even aware enough of the significance of those supposedly more well-known villains to understand or even be aware of these other American evils.)

The fact is that Trumbo was the top of the line screenwriter when he was brought before Congress and the HUAC, accused of affiliating with the Communist Party (without evidence) and all that such an affiliation implied (implied being the key word here, not what it genuinely meant or represented but simply what was inferred from such an affiliation).  What is tremendous about the stance that he and the others of the “Hollywood Ten” who stood to not name names nor to even address the accusations was that they didn’t invoke the Fifth Amendment (against incriminating themselves — since they rightly stated that they had done nothing criminal) but rather that they invoked the First Amendment, about the right to freedom of speech and thought, untamperable with by the government.  And they paid for their honorable approach with being denied a right to work and by becoming public pariah in American society, them and their families, condemned and mistreated.

Trumbo’s words do state it best throughout, condemning the Hollywood producers who publicly decried the HUAC rulings but ultimately were the ones who enforced a blacklist.  The pain of the path of the noble, not that Trumbo himself was the worst sufferer, but rather that he knew first-hand how crushing the experience had been to friends and peers, how it ruined families and lives, and how ignoble it truly was.  At one point he says something about how when you are an American who has not named names and are side by side with someone who has, which person really shows the ideals of American values and which person is the most likely to sell out his country and countrymen, the one who turned to protect himself and his own needs, or the one who stood against the oppression.

And that statement is quite profound.  And it has relevence so deeply throughout the early years of the post-9/11 America, where un-Americanism reared its ugly head as a moniker of demonization.  And how apt is such clarity of character and belief in a world so fraught with lies and ignorance as now, when the discussion of a bill for healthcare reform has a ripe dialogue in news media that includes such heinous critiques of an American president’s character and integrity?

The bottom line is that the HUAC story, the story of the Hollywood Ten and more, Dalton Trumbo’s stories, are all stories that should be known and understood by Americans.  It is a warning against great wrongs and injustice in the facade of American ideals and is still so potent and dangerous.

Dalton Trumbo is symbolic in his winning an Oscar during his blacklist for a screenplay/story that he’d written under a pseudonym, for being the first of those writers and artists to get his screen credit back under his real name Spartacus (1960), and for being someone of profound intelligence and integrity, and truly a powerfully adept writer whose legacy is left in his books, screenplays, and personal writings and interviews, that prove out above the heinous mistreatment that he and others suffered under during a shameful period in American history, not even a full lifetime away from now.

This documentary didn’t impress me itself.  I disliked the style of its composition and the dramatic readings seemed a bit self-satisfied and smug.  That’s just my opinion.  But I think that Trumbo’s is a story that should be more widely known, something that we should continue to utilize in these heady days of our own modern fear and political bullshit.

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