'Trumbo' Whitewashes a Dark Period in American History

Jay Roach’s film sidesteps the lives ruined during the McCarthy era, instead focusing on the story of someone who went from victim to victor.

Director Jay Roach’s film “Trumbo,” about screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – who was blacklisted for over a decade after World War II due to his membership in the Communist Party and barred from officially working in the Hollywood movie industry – epitomizes the mainstream sensibilities of American filmmaking. Given the particular milieu in which the film is set, this proves most disheartening.

Roach’s film presents an American history lesson for beginners. Scrolling titles at the start of the film provide a quick primer on the anti-Communist hysteria that gripped America with the outbreak of the Cold War in the post-World War II period; titles at the end, accompanied by real footage of the characters portrayed in the movie, proclaim that it was a dark and tragic era in which the lives and careers of a large number of victims were ruined. But for anyone unfamiliar with the details of the history of that time, and with the numerous names of the people who were involved and who fell victim to it, Roach’s film will not convey just how acute were the paranoia, persecution and fear that prevailed then, when the fascist element of American society came out of hiding and lashed out mercilessly.

American cinema hasn’t often dealt with those ugly years, and when it has done so, the results have not been that spectacular. But Martin Ritt’s “The Front,” Sydney Pollack’s “The Way We Were” and even a failed film like Irwin Winkler’s “Guilty by Suspicion” all depicted the atmosphere that pervaded 1950s Hollywood much more effectively than Roach’s film does.

Written by John McNamara, Roach’s movie doesn’t choose to present the story of one of the most prominent victims who was ruined by the blacklist, such as the director and screenwriter Abraham Polonsky, who did not direct any film between 1948 and 1969, and whose career was then halted again; or the actor John Garfield, who was blacklisted and then died in 1952, at age 39; or the many filmmakers who fled from the United States to Europe and could barely eke out a living. Instead, we get the story of someone who went from victim to victor.

The choice of Dalton Trumbo as the hero of a film about this era is a comfortable and predictable one, both because Trumbo was one of the better-known names included on the blacklist (he’d won prizes in 1938 for his novel “Johnny Got His Gun”), and was the best known of the so-called Hollywood Ten, the 10 screenwriters and directors who were jailed for a year on contempt charges for refusing to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee. He is also a comfortable and predictable choice because his story comes replete with juicy Hollywood anecdotes. He won the Oscar twice for movies he wrote, although his name was not attached to them: William Wyler’s 1953 film “Roman Holiday,” which a screenwriter friend agreed to put his name to and sell for him, and Irving Rapper’s 1956 movie “The Brave One,” where Trumbo used the pen name Robert Rich. One of the many bits of archival footage woven into “Trumbo” shows the actress Deborah Kerr at the Oscars announcing Robert Rich as the winner for Best Screenplay, followed by the awkward moment when there is no one to come up on stage to accept the award.

Primarily, this is a tale of victory, in keeping with American values. A victory made possible thanks to the courage of two people – director Otto Preminger, who tasked Trumbo with writing the script for “Exodus” and gave him full credit in the film credits, and actor Kirk Douglas, who insisted that Trumbo receive full credit for the screenplay for “Spartacus,” directed by Stanley Kubrick. The two movies, which came out in 1960, with Trumbo’s name prominently attached to them, brought about an end to the blacklist.

Crisis transformed

In other words, Roach’s film turns Trumbo’s story into a classic, conservative American tale of crisis transformed into triumph, by virtue of the courage of two men who embody America’s determination not to surrender to the dark forces threatening it from the inside. Even if most of the events depicted in the movie are factually correct, McNamara’s script turns Trumbo’s story into a melodrama that blunts the brutality, and simplifies the history, of the time in which the film is set, so that what emerges is an allegory with a thoroughly populist and patriotic message.

Roach and McNamara’s film takes such a primitive approach to history that its depiction of that era in Hollywood is akin to a fairy tale in which the characters are starkly divided into good guys and bad guys. The chief villains in this recounting are Hedda Hopper, the gossip columnist renowned for her flamboyant taste in hats, who maliciously sought to get anyone suspected of Communist sympathies blacklisted, and movie star John Wayne, whose extreme right-wing views were well known. Out of all those who informed on their colleagues before the House Un-American Activities Committee in order to save their careers, the film places the entire weight of the era’s moral haze on the actor Edward G. Robinson (even though Robinson, a noted art collector, sold a Van Gogh painting in his collection to pay for the defense of the 10 who were sent to prison). The name of director Elia Kazan, perhaps the most notorious informer of all, is never mentioned in the movie.

Instead of truly exploring the historical, ideological and movie-industry context in which the movie is set, Roach and McNamara’s film turns Trumbo’s story into a traditional family melodrama that focuses on the hardships Trumbo and his family endure after he is blacklisted. Trumbo is depicted as an eccentric personality who likes to write while sitting in the bathtub, smoking a cigar and drinking whiskey. The other family members, especially his wife Chloe and eldest daughter Niki, are no more than stereotypes here.

The film’s historical and ideological void leaves very little room for the actors who appear in it. John Goodman is amusing as the B-movie producer Frank King, who hired Trumbo to work for him for peanuts (and for whom Trumbo wrote such classics as “Gun Crazy,” directed by Joseph H. Lewis in 1950), and Helen Mirren is certainly entertaining in her portrayal of Hedda Hopper as a villain worthy of a Brothers Grimm fairy tale. Dean O’Gorman is convincing as Kirk Douglas (the same cannot be said of David James Elliott as John Wayne).

Bryan Cranston’s performance as Trumbo is not the least bit subtle, but it’s not really his fault. Just as the movie drains its historic setting of any real context, aside from a few superficial references, it also drains the Trumbo character of any ideological, moral or human complexity. We don’t get to know him or his thoughts and feelings through how he relates to his work and his family. 

Anyone who enjoys old Hollywood gossip will probably enjoy the film, but it doesn’t have anything to offer beyond that. The name of Senator Joseph McCarthy, shown in an archival portrait, is mentioned a grand total of once in the movie – so that anyone who never heard of the senator, who admittedly joined the wave of persecution at a relatively late stage, will have no concept of his symbolic historic importance.

Compared with earlier films that dealt with the period of the anti-Communist witch hunt in a faltering or unsuccessful way, despite obvious good intentions, “Trumbo” is an off-putting film because it tries to use historic truth to whitewash history for ideological purposes that make the past just an innocuous memory. Among much that the movie omits is the fact that a majority of those who were blacklisted were Jews. The blacklisting era was one of the darkest times in American history, and traces of it still remain, even if they reach into other spheres. In its attempt to extract from that darkness a chauvinistic, ideological message designed to ease America’s reckoning with its past, “Trumbo” must therefore be seen as a cinematic and historic distortion.