Category: Culture and Reviews

Trumbo: The Right Film for the Right Time

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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Hillary’s Hard Choices: What Her Resume Says to the Voters

Hard ChoicesIn June, 2014, before announcing her candidacy for president (in April 2015), Hillary Rodham Clinton published a massive tome of 600 pages, Hard Choices, cataloging her experience as the 67th US Secretary of State (serving from January, 2009 to February, 2013).  While a great many politicians, and especially former Secretaries of State, have published memoirs and other works based on their experiences, it was clear from the start that this book was meant to be more, from an author who herself intended to continue with her political career to the next step – the path to the presidency.  And indeed, Hard Choices reads like an overwhelmingly fleshed-out resume.  Taking the book as an argument for her qualification for the next job in her sights, the book argues clearly (as a resume should) about the candidate’s experience, training, professionalism, relevance, and attitude.  Clinton’s detractors may condemn her self-congratulation for solving major problems, and for explaining away those episodes (especially the Benghazi consulate attack) that the conservatives have used to attack her.  The book may, in part, have been written in the intention of finding allies against such attacks.  However, despite ending her book with uncertainty about whether to run (and considering that question as her next “hard choice”), Clinton clearly wrote the book to market herself for the next major job ahead.

Taking Hard Choices as Clinton’s resume, Clinton argues, in effect, that her foreign policy experience and philosophy is her key asset as a prospective president, rather than her domestic issues platform.  At the very least, the book is an argument that Clinton’s foreign-policy platform is well grounded (and her campaign since releasing the book and announcing her candidacy has striven to beef up her domestic issues portfolio).  Clinton describes her basic approach to foreign policy as “smart power,” tying “soft power” elements of diplomacy, technological development, humanitarian assistance and relief, cultural ties; and a multilayered involvement moving past governments and foreign ministries to include businesses and corporations, students, unions, NGOs, and other institutions of civil society (and especially political non-state actors who are growing in international political power and significance); with “hard power” elements of military force and alliance systems (p. 33).  Throughout her book, Clinton details her involvement with all of these elements of international strategy and foreign policy.

Clinton argues that her executive experience is strong, and that it shows her ability to face crises and make the “hard choices” posed by both unexpected and long-developing events, conditions, and situations.  Her executive experience is of course the main study of her argument, depicting the world from the point of view of the office of Secretary of State.  Clinton shows herself to be not merely an office-dwelling paper-pusher, but an activist solver of problems, flying millions of miles in the course of her four-year term to a multitude of nations across the world.  She clearly believes in an up-close and personal “shuttle diplomacy” style of engagement, visiting with foreign leaders (political and otherwise) directly, and negotiating settlements and agreements directly.  Clinton argues that, particularly in Asia, a key region of modern global development and policy, personal relations and in-person conversations are central to building close international ties (and Pew Research Center polling indicates that, indeed, global popular approval of the US spiked during Clinton’s term as Secretary of State; although it is likely that Obama’s presidency beyond Clinton’s own work may have helped generate global support for the US).

Clinton’s close and personal style of foreign policy has helped build relations with world leaders, and she describes her work with Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, etc., not just in terms of effective policy but in terms of her own personal connection with these leaders.  She argues in effect that the US can best be served by having a leader who already knows, is friendly with, and has had positive and successful dealings with the many players on the stage of global affairs.

The title and concept of Clinton’s book themselves also argue that Clinton is capable of facing crises and taking risks, a necessary qualification for any President and Commander in Chief.  She depicted risky, multilayered approaches to foreign policy problem areas such as China, where while negotiating for trade and political agreements, she still pushed human rights (and specifically defended certain “celebrity dissidents,” such as Chen Guangchen and Gao Yaojie), and she defended the smaller powers of southeast Asia from a Chinese attempt to dominate the region during ASEAN talks in July 2010.  In Afghanistan, while leading efforts to wean both lesser members and higher heads of the Taliban away from the movement (or at least toward reconciliation with Karzai’s regime), she continued and expanded efforts to build agency and opportunity for women (which many Islamic fundamentalists consider to be a deal-breaker).  Afghanistan also figures as an example of Clinton’s “smart power” approach, where “hard” military operations were linked to nation-building efforts (by both military and civilian organizations), and by other “soft” power venues.  Clinton also describes the “Russian reset” during Medvedev’s term as president, with the US engaging cooperatively with Russia on issues where possible, working with other powers to “contain” Russian expansionism where not, and working at local, “popular” levels to build relations with the Russian people and with non-governmental actors.  Despite Putin’s own later “reset” upon returning to the presidency (transforming Medvedev’s more cooperative Russia back into Putin’s more aggressive state), Clinton notes the successes of the American “reset” in “…imposing strong sanctions on Iran and North Korea, [and] opening a northern supply route to equip our forces in Afghanistan…” (p. 235).  Clinton also described her management of crises in Libya (working with the ground forces of the revolution to remove Gaddafi from power), the Gaza War (using “shuttle diplomacy” and her personal relationship with Netanyahu to tone down the tense and violent conflict with a limited cease-fire), and Haiti (leading the effort to rebuild after a massive earthquake, and supporting the peaceful transfer of power from President Préval to Michel Martelly).

Clinton uses both the overall narrative of the book, as well as a dedicated chapter, to argue that she in particular has been a dependable soldier for human rights.  From a controversial speech as First Lady in Beijing, declaring that “women’s rights are human rights, and human rights are women’s rights,” to a similar speech in Geneva as Secretary of State, using the same phraseology to argue that LGBT rights are human rights, to steering US support to political activists in Belarus, helping dissidents in China and Burma, aiding Haiti in a rare, peaceful transition of power, connecting with women’s rights activists in Yemen and Afghanistan, Clinton demonstrates her commitment to human rights.  She argues that as Secretary of State, her commitment helped to realize a noticeable improvement in human rights across the world.

There are subtler messages in Clinton’s narrative which, while not tangible arguments, manage to bleed through the lines to argue for her candidacy.  Her work with Obama is demonstrated as a principle of pushing past political fights and working with political opponents, and therefore reads as an argument that she can also work with other political rivals within the Democratic Party, with Republican conservatives, and perhaps even with Tea Party extremists.  Her depiction of her husband Bill Clinton’s mission to North Korea to arrange the release of two American journalists effectively argues that, as a team, the two Clintons would make a formidable political force if given once again the powers of the White House.  Clinton also depicts the events leading up to, and including, the US special forces operation killing Osama bin Laden.  While she does not take credit for the operation, her narrative seems to argue a right to “collateral credit” for being in the room and for supporting the operation with her own diplomatic forces.

If viewed as a resume, Clinton’s Hard Choices does what a resume should do.  It is a document told from the point of view of a prospective candidate for a job, selling and focusing on the strengths of the candidate for that job, and minimizing (or at least explaining) the candidate’s failings and mistakes.  A resume is sometimes used to blow up a candidate’s actual, smaller role in previous jobs into a greater fiction; and Clinton’s detractors may well see a similar, self-serving message in her narrative.  The length of the tome may also discourage less enthusiastic or interested readers; and therefore suffers from the tendency to preach to the choir.  On the other hand, the principal rule of marketing is: first, last, and always, market to your existing customers.  This Clinton’s book purports to do.  As to how much of her message will reach, and will resonate with, the rest of her party, and the rest of the nation, the next year of campaigning will have to tell.