What was "communism," actually? Mikhail Gorbachev pondered the term once as if it was somewhat alien to him, shrugged, and explained the term in the context of legitimized organized crime. In other words, there were unelected leaders. Any time political leaders aren't accountable to the broad public, it's analogous to organized crime. "Communism" seemed a term rather pulled out of the ether.
Which brings me to the focus for this post I'm writing: a review of the movie "Trumbo." The movie is a vehicle for that actor from "Breaking Bad." Bryan Cranston gives a quite fine performance. "Trumbo" is all about the Hollywood blacklisting scandal. I checked out this DVD from our Morris Public Library, with confidence I would like it greatly. I requested it, in fact. A movie about artists being repressed, and triumphing in the end, would certainly be appealing, right?
The subject matter is not new. Years ago I checked out "Good Night, and Good Luck," about the whole Edward P. Murrow episode. An element in our country was surely chasing shadows all over the place. The political dichotomy in these movies - the good vs. evil aspect - seems to make critics bend over backwards to like them. "Evil" is represented by stuffed-shirt politicians who deserve no megaphone. They persecute the erudite class of people who tend to have sharply progressive political attitudes. The critics are clearly in the fraternity of the latter.
My problem with "Good Night, and Good Luck" was that it seemed too much an unimaginative documentary. It plods through a story with elements I was already well familiar with.
"Trumbo" begins to drag
I was fine with "Trumbo" until about a third of the way through. I began to sense it was dragging. The movie tried to cover too much ground. It should have stuck with its essence more: the unjustifiable persecution of a creative person. Of course, I was already well familiar with this whole story too. We had the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The title of this entity in itself invites suspicion. It shouts "reactionary." The committee sought to investigate actors and filmmakers who were accused of using the medium to push their communist views on the community.
The ultra progressives of today, the Bernie Sanders supporters, would be highly reluctant to get close to the term "communists." The term seems rather an anachronism, a creation of the Cold War, that time of ugly suspicion that gave the backdrop for us boomers growing up.
I attended a pro wrestling exhibition that had "the Russian" offering to shake hands at one point. It was a ruse, of course, and he used it to apply some punishment. "You can't trust the Russians!"
My generation never bought into the idea that we had to be fixated on the boogeyman communists. In a sense we might have been isolationists, figuring our country was strong enough to prevail with our historical framework, a framework built on those hallowed democratic principles. As for the rest of the world, it's too bad that bad things can happen. But we didn't want to give up tens of thousands of our own - the boomers - to fight in the jungles of Southeast Asia. Those "dominoes" were imaginary.
This nation never came close to a communist overthrow. Those Hollywood screenwriters were just eccentric curiosities, a trait we can expect from such people who weave a fantasy world for us.
Dalton Trumbo was an acclaimed screenwriter in Hollywood. He punched away on a manual typewriter. He and his friends smoked. Initially in the wake of World War II, communism seemed like a good counterbalance to fascism. I might clarify here that the Nazis weren't rally fascists, they were a death cult.
Communists become prime enemy
We all know the script changed, as it were, and communists came to be seen as a devil in the world. Popular culture has them philosophizing all over the place. The reality is more like what Gorbachev suggested: it was simply "crime," i.e. people seeking political power who were not elected or accountable. I have found that people in real life aren't much interested in philosophizing.
Hollywood has portrayed communism in the rather stereotypical way - my, would Hollywood do that? - and I recall a William Holden movie, set in China, as being the epitome of this. People focus on their own interests and not a "philosophy."
Hollywood is the famed "dream factory." Dalton Trumbo was of course not disposed to cooperate with the House committee, not even to answer innocuous and preliminary questions from this legally-established entity. Trumbo went to prison for about a year.
The movie weaves in a lot of characters, and branches off into the man's family life. It got too involved and ponderous. I began to wonder if the movie was self-important and preachy, justifying its length and complexity on the premise that this persecution of a man was almost Biblical. The guy was just a screenwriter, immersed in the fluff of life, the "dream factory."
It is highly unfortunate that the committee and the Hollywood industry itself came down like a sledgehammer on so many people. People can indeed be crude and harsh in their behavior toward one another. The blacklisting episode should never have happened. However, far more woeful things were on this country's plate, or should have been. So many lives were cut down as with a scythe due to our involvement in Korea and Viet Nam.
Are these conflicts, with such mass scale really necessary for mankind to stabilize itself? Look how black people were treated in the Deep South of our nation, at the same time the blacklisting episode happened. Black people were denied their basic humanity. And yet we get an extended-length movie like "Trumbo" that has a preachy effect about how creative people ought not be treated.
The biggest sin, probably, was that political opportunism was seized upon by people who saw the powerful effect of fear. We had to be vigilant vs. those communists, we were told. By 1960 the facade broke down and everyone did what they should have done all along: relax. John F. Kennedy helped prick the bubble of the fear mongers.
My favorite character in the movie was played by John Goodman. This guy unabashedly and presumably profitably, gives the world low-budget movies. A movie was once made about Ed Wood. I read a negative review of the Ed Wood movie based on how it just pilloried him for the supposed lack of quality in his films, when in fact Wood, and the Goodman character, must have gotten into the film industry because of their love of film. We needed to learn more about that angle. Nobody takes an artistic job with the intent of crudely putting out swill. Some people just choose to live within budget parameters. We can still love the low-grade stuff. Admit it, you have.
The Hollywood-centric aspect
"Trumbo" has been described as "catnip for fans of old Hollywood," and that's part of my problem with it. It's Hollywood celebrating itself with an element of chutzpah. I can't blame them really. This is their world. They invite us to be guests. But we should never feel the world revolves around them.
Hollywood seeks to simplify things. "Trumbo" encourages us to think Hedda Hopper and John Wayne were the consummate bad guys greasing the skids for the whole episode. No actor can really play John Wayne, of course. Any attempt comes off as camp.
The movie "Trumbo" is simplified and made easy-to-consume for all the rubes like me who just want to see a good guys vs. bad guys template.
Dalton Trumbo was convicted of contempt of Congress, not just for refusing to address ethically questionable lines of inquiry, but to give any basic factual testimony in response to this lawful (if ethically challenged) investigation.
The House Un-American Committee did not blacklist anyone. The Hollywood studios did that. For a decade the blacklist was standard practice.
Yes, "Trumbo" gives us a degree of mythology. What about the two years this man spent in Mexico? We see nothing of that.
You would think the likes of Dalton Trumbo would feel kin with the Bernie Sanders types of the time. But, not at all. A successful liberal regime (like we got with LBJ's "Great Society?") would stand in the way of the true revolution that the communists sought. "Trumbo" gives us the gallant blacklist martyrs along with the cartoonish Hollywood villains like Hedda Hopper and John Wayne. But that's Hollywood.
Here's what I really think
So, let's boil down my review: "Trumbo" begins in a promising way, celebrating the buoyant life of a superbly talented person, but it begins to drag. And then it drags worse. I begin to sense it's one of those self-important movies from Hollywood, about Hollywood. I smell parochialism. Our country's fate is not tied up in how a few brilliant but superfluous movie writers are treated. It's sad but outweighed by so many other injustices in America and around the world.
I finally took a bathroom break, certain I wasn't going to make it to the end of the movie without relieving myself. Then I returned, thinking "sheesh, will this movie ever end?" I wasn't interested in Trumbo's family life. All families have issues and stresses. About half an hour could have been cut out of this movie. Distill it down to the defining elements: conflict and persecution by fear-mongers directed at the gadfly of supposed "communists" in Hollywood's creative community - the "dream factory."
Unfortunately I can not recommend this 2015 cinematic offering.