Director Jay Roach’s biopic Trumbo has come along at just the right moment, to remind us of the costs of vilifying our political enemies, to remind us of the ideals that our country is supposed to represent, and to remind us of the costs for failing to live up to these ideals. Written by John McNamara, and based on a book by Bruce Cook, this film deals with the extremism of that American political staple, the political witch-hunt. Filled with an all-star cast (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad as Dalton Trumbo, Diane Lane as his wife Cleo, Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper, John Goodman as Francis King, and Louis C.K. as Arlen Hird), the film tells the tale of the House Un-American Activities Committee‘s investigation into what was called the “Hollywood Ten,” and the effects of that investigation on the lives of those involved.
The movie depicts Hollywood screen writer Dalton Trumbo as an unapologetic Communist, whose party affiliation and sympathies lead to his fight with HUAC, resulting in a conviction for contempt for Congress (for failing to respond as desired to HUAC’s questioning). Trumbo serves time in jail, as do some of his cohorts; and he is later joined in jail by Congressman J. Parnell Thomas (chairman of HUAC in 1947) on charges of corruption. In reality, Trumbo and Thomas served time in different prisons; but two other members of the Hollywood Ten did serve in the same prison as Thomas, and at the same time. After his release from prison, Trumbo continues to work underground for the film industry, as film-makers and producers need his talents but are unwilling to let his name be attached to their work. A few of Trumbo’s films win Oscars; but with other writers taking credit for the screenplays. Trumbo’s name and career are ultimately rehabilitated in part through the help of luminaries such as director Otto Preminger, actor Kirk Douglas (insisting that Trumbo get the writing credit for Stanley Kubric’s Spartacus) and President John F. Kennedy (who crossed right-wing picket lines to see the movie, and urged other film-goers to do the same).
As the movie’s erstwhile hero, Trumbo is actually quite flawed. He is shown as a less than available husband and father to his family, putting many demands upon them, but not showing much in the way of affection or sympathy. And the movie makes it plain to the viewer that, unlike many Americans who were unfairly judged for sympathies they did not have, or may never have had, Trumbo remained every bit a Communist. The film also pokes some fun at Trumbo’s pre-blacklist success in Hollywood, becoming quite rich, an unlikely economic position for someone claiming to be a Communist. What the film shows is not that the accusation of Trumbo’s being a Communist was itself inaccurate; but that it is constitutionally irrelevant. As an American citizen, Trumbo demanded (and legally had, whatever the courts may have decided) the right to have and to speak his views, especially as he was not in any way involved in any kind of power politics or calling for the violent overthrow of the government. As nothing more than a screenplay writer, there was no legal or constitutional basis for his, or the rest of the “Ten’s” persecution. And yet, as he noted, lives were lost, and more lives destroyed, solely because of either their political views or their connections to others with unfashionable political views.
The importance of the role played by this film is not merely as a typically Hollywood presentation of the “fighting the good fight” feel-good movie, or as an historical portrayal of typically questionable accuracy. Rather, the importance lies in the very notion of America, as a country that promises each of us the room to be what we want to be, so long as we abide by the most basic laws. When that promise is broken, when our nation persecutes those merely because of where we (or our ancestors) came from, or what religions or politics we believe in, or whom we wish to associate with or work with (especially when they, too, have broken no actual laws), then we lose all of the moral high ground claimed by our City on the Hill. While it was unfortunate indeed that during the Red Scare, some Americans were punished for beliefs that they no longer (or possibly never) had, it is also unfortunate – and was, in fact illegal and unconstitutional – to punish even those who were Communists, even those who expressed sympathies with our Cold War adversary, the Soviet Union, so long as they were not themselves conspiring to take over the nation through means other than electoral politics. The Red Scare was a typically Orwellian notion, recalling of course Erich Fromm’s introduction to 1984, in which Fromm warned readers that Orwell’s book was not about the Soviet Union; but was a warning to the West that in struggling against Communism, the West was going to assume the worst sins of Communism. The persecution of Communists, in complete abandonment of all our constitutional principles and of all of our expressed beliefs in the rightness of our civil liberties, was a withdrawal from a high place of superiority justifying our struggle with the Soviet Union, to the lowest depths in which we and the Soviet Union became briefly, and frighteningly, one. And today, as Americans consider terrorism abroad (and ignore its presence in our midst); as we vilify those claiming allegiance to a religious faith indistinguishable from that held by a majority of our own citizens; and as we view each other’s political parties with suspicion and distrust, we need this film and others like it to remind us that our freedoms are not a mere convenience, to be discarded when inconvenient; but are the centerpiece of what we fight for and what makes our nation worth fighting for.
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