To say that Hollywood is inhabited by self-congratulatory, self-important, narcissistic egomaniacs is perhaps an understatement and self-evident. However, that’s not to say that the Hollywood creative class is without talent, skill or principle. If anything, a great, contemporary Hollywood film exhibits both of these qualities at once. Hollywood films are also very good at promoting Hollywood’s own self-righteous mythology of being inhabited by collection of pious crusaders who are On the Right Side of History and Trumbo is unequivocally one of these films. Trumbo is of course a biopic which dramatizes the life of screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, but it also touches on issues of free speech and the First Amendment, free markets, the anti-Communist witch hunts of the 50’s and the Hollywood Blacklist. This film is roughly analogous to Reds in that it dramatizes a figure of the American Left who had Communist sympathies and was persecuted for his convictions, but it is far inferior to Reds in the sense that it utterly fails to pinpoint the failure of leftist and Marxist ideology and the reversal of roles that has taken place between the Right and the Left in contemporary society. In the latter respect, Trumbo is dismal bit of partisan hackery which seeks only to reinforce the mythology of the American Right as corrupt, vacuous authoritarians who are Wrong About Everything and the Left as the principled, virtuous rebels On the Right Side of History whose voices and spotless moral rectitude are under perpetual assault by those dirty ReTHUGliKKKans. Though it’s refreshing to get a Hollywood film that wears its political stripes on its sleeve, the solid philosophical points that it does make are completely undermined by its partisanship.
Trumbo starts off on very shaky ground and only devolves from there. We’re presented with an extravagant poolside party with Bryan Cranston’s Trumbo arguing passionately in favor of the beleaguered proles whose labor creates so much surplus value for the greedy Hollywood capitalists. The soulless and indifferent Hollywood executive with whom he was arguing haughtily dismisses him as a Dirty Red and walks away leaving a cloud of contempt in his wake. This incident portends the ostracism to come. Principled, Compassionate Leftist is just trying to speak his mind and stick up for the Little Guy and he’s just shut down by an Evil, Heartless Conservative. In a subsequent scene on the plush ranch he purchased from the earnings he made from the dirty capitalist system, Trumbo is taking his daughter Niki on a horseback ride. Niki nervously asks him if he’s a Communist to which he answers clearly and unequivocally, “Yes.” She asks him if she’s also a Communist. Instead of educating his child with history, economics, and sound reasoning and asking her to reach her own conclusion, he lays out a half-baked, simplistic analogy which offers no sound foundation upon which to make an informed choice. Rather than expounding on why he was sympathetic to Marxist politics, he likens Communism as being exactly equivalent to sharing a sandwich with a student at school. This is the level of vile sophistry and perversion of economics and history to which Hollywood has descended. Socialism is just charity and caring for your fellow man, proles. That’s all. Utterly contemptible and loathsome.
Anti-communist sentiment was on the rise, and Trumbo and his screenwriter colleagues banded together to oppose the ascendant persecution as well as affirm the freedom to assert their political convictions on First Amendment grounds. In another gathering of Hollywood elites, David James Elliott does a great job channeling John Wayne’s cartoonish patriotism and his anti-Communist bloviations. The roomful of executives and actors express their agreement with cheers, applause and laughter at every sentence spoken. Once again, we see the Dirty, Evil Conservatives in the thrall of patriotic groupthink and the Fearless, Intrepid Leftists who just want to assert basic American Constitutional principles. The gathering ends with a confrontation between Trumbo and Wayne in which Wayne is taken down a peg when Trumbo reminds him that his patriotism was only tested in the comfort of a Hollywood studio and not in the trenches of the battlefront. Playing failed actress, gossip columnist, Anita Sarkeesian progenitor, and all around contemptible bitch, Hedda Hopper, Helen Mirren giddily informs him that he will be ruined in the court of public opinion in her column.
Despite making waves for his political sensibilities, Trumbo’s star was on the rise and he signs a lucrative contract with MGM. As he’s about to sign on the dotted line, Louis Mayer holds up Hopper’s column and warns him not to make these kinds of headlines. He signs and simply advises him not to read the papers. He’s subsequently served a subpoena to appear before the House Un-American Activities Committee, and is subject to an interrogation that most have come to associate with the term McCarthyism. He refuses on the grounds that he’s not being charged with an actual crime, but is ultimately charged with contempt of Congress. He is sentenced to time in the federal penitentiary along with nine others, and the infamous Hollywood Ten are born.
Hopper exerts her influence even further in a private meeting with Mayer. She pressures him into refusing employment to those on the Blacklist by threatening to tar him in her column and manipulating him with appeals to patriotism. Mayer tries to push back, but caves in when he realizes he’s cornered. She plunges the knife in further with a few choice anti-Semitic digs at him and other Jewish studio heads. Here, we see the filmmakers peddling the mythology of racism, Nazism, authoritarianism and fascism being the sole province of the Political Right. Never mind the Nazi’s application of Keynesian economic policy in the run up to World War II which mirrored FDR’s applications. Never mind FDR’s internment of the Japanese. The filmmakers clearly want the viewer to associate Nazism and fascism with the Political Right.
While in prison, he befriends a gruff and surly inmate, Virgil Brooks, who is in charge of prison supplies and happens to be black. Naturally, since Trumbo is a Leftist and Friend of the Dispossessed and Unjustly Persecuted, he is able to ingratiate himself to him sufficiently in order to obtain work typing up requisitions. Brooks offers him the gig, but reminds him that he will “fuck him” if he violates his trust at any point. During his period of incarceration, a former Trumbo actor colleague, Edward G. Robinson, is called to HUAC to testify and the inmates are able to watch the hearing on the communal television. Robinson confesses to being a liberal Democrat, but distances himself and outs his own former colleagues as Communists just to avoid the ostracism that Trumbo and the remaining Hollywood Ten received. After the testimony, Brooks says that if anyone in prison snitched like that, they’d be killed. That’s right, proles. Truly ethical behavior and real human virtue can be found in the prison population of America. The American criminal justice system is surely guilty of being overzealous in prosecuting an ever expanding sphere of illegality, but this persistent effort to invert reality and attribute virtue to all things Leftist is positively odious. This phenomenon is due in no small part to activism from both the black community and liberals alike, but you’re more likely to hear idiotic lectures about white privilege than you are admissions of their respective roles legislating these outcomes.
In another bit of blatant partisanship, Trumbo encounters fellow inmate and former HUAC committee member and interrogator, J. Parnell Thomas. Thomas was sentenced for corruption charges, and Trumbo takes a shot at him by reminding him that he’s the only real criminal between the two of them. Apparently, only conservatives are corrupt and abuse political power.
After serving his year long sentence, Trumbo returns to his family and attempts to revive his flagging career prospects. He’s forced to sell his plush ranch and the Trumbo family take up residence in the Los Angeles suburbs. His neighbors are aware of him and the persecution continues with threatening anonymous notes and vandalistic messages on their property. Desperate for work, Trumbo makes a deal with B-movie kingpin, Frank King, and agrees to write scripts under a pseudonym. During this time, he secures work for his blacklisted colleagues and enters into a period of relentless output and near perpetual solitude. In a family meeting in which Trumbo conscripts his family into his semi-clandestine script writing factory, Niki wonders how she will fit in time for her studies and her Civil Rights activism. Got that, proles? Leftists are smart, studious, industrious and of course, care deeply about Social Justice. Trumbo’s star is also quietly rising as he wins Oscars for penning Roman Holiday and The Brave One, but cannot claim credit due to his blacklist status. His relationship with his family is increasingly strained as a result of his punishing work schedule, and things come to head during Niki’s sixteenth birthday. She cannot believe that her own father cannot spare even a minute to share a piece of birthday cake on this momentous occasion, and she storms off in a fit of frustration. Trumbo seeks her out in order to attempt a reconciliation and finds her fighting patriarchy and racism at the racially integrated café. For once, the Hollywood film portrays the father as a positive influence on his daughter. Apparently, even Leftists have to affirm family values and the virtues of fatherhood every now and then.
Trumbo’s fortunes finally turn when Kirk Douglas asks him to work on the script for Spartacus. Douglas is able to win Trumbo over by telling him that Spartacus is the story of a man who stood his ground when the world was against him. Trumbo’s script catches the attention of filmmaker Otto Preminger and he’s offered another big opportunity to write the script for Exodus. Hopper’s defamation campaign is relentless and she attempts to manipulate and threaten Douglas for employing Trumbo, but ultimately caves in to Douglas’ resolve. “When did you become such a bastard?” asks Hopper. “I’ve always been a bastard,” retorts Douglas. What appears to be Spartacus’ Randian message of individualism against the tyranny of the collective is transformed into the facile collectivism of #JeSuisCharlie. The reign of repression is finally broken when Preminger goes to the press with an open admission that Trumbo is the writer of Exodus.
Trumbo is canonized with an award in the final scene, and here, the film commits its final atrocity of intellectual dishonesty and smug, self-congratulatory partisanship. In a speech, Trumbo asserts a hypocritical and contemptible moral relativism by claiming that there were “no heroes and no villains” during the anti-Communist purges. After two hours of demagoguery and demonization of the Political Right, the filmmakers just want you to believe that this was just a non-partisan slice of history without an agenda from which you can draw your own conclusions. It’s not as though the politicization of Hollywood began under FDR and has continued to push government propaganda ever since then. It’s not as though leftists have triumphed overwhelmingly in their legislative pursuits over the past century and those policies have contributed to any of the negative outcomes in America. It’s not as though leftists have overwhelmingly colonized academia and Hollywood and nearly all of the messaging reflects a solidly leftist ideological bent. It’s not as though leftist social justice activism has taken on the exact same characteristics as the McCarthyist witch hunts and people now lose their jobs and fortunes in the Star Chamber of social media. There are no failed leftist policies and there is no reckoning to be made with the historical connections to failed socialist states and contemporary leftist policy. Nope. It’s just those dirty conservatives and their nationalism, authoritarianism, racism, and dumb, selfish devotion to capitalism.
Trumbo is a an interesting story which touches on an earlier and highly politicized atmosphere in America from which important lessons can be drawn. Unfortunately, it’s just peddling the same lesson that Hollywood is almost always selling. As long as you’re a Leftist, you’re a Good Person. If not, you’re evil, racist and stupid and on the Wrong Side of History. Setting aside his socialist politics, Trumbo’s life stands as a testimony to the importance of free speech, the inextricable link between individual freedom and economic freedom that can only flourish under capitalism, and against the pernicious influence of the state in carrying out a political agenda regardless of its partisan origins. Everyone regardless of political affiliation can learn from these examples. It’s just too bad they’ve been papered over with the facile talking points of the Left.