A Samuel Goldwyn film, 2008
Directed by Peter Askin,
Written by Christopher Trumbo,
At the opening of the United Nations on June 26, 1945, U.S. Secretary of State Edward Stettinius delivered a speech he didn’t write. The writer was Dalton Trumbo, a highly paid Hollywood screenwriter and Stalinist. How did a scribe like Dalton Trumbo score that kind of a gig? That’s an interesting question but nobody will find out from Trumbo, the documentary from Samuel Goldwyn films.
It’s the latest whitewash of a blacklist victim, One of the Hollywood Ten, cast as an innocent liberal persecuted only for his idealism and dedication to American principles. In past treatments of Trumbo, one could hear the sound of a barrel being scraped. Here the barrel gets hosed out and sanitized against anything that might raise questions about the simplistic black-and-white story line. Even so, it does put to rest some literary questions.
Here movie stars such Brian Dennehy, Donald Sutherland, David Strathairn, Nathan Lane, Josh Lucas, Michael Douglas and others read excerpts from Trumbo’s own works. The intent seems clear enough, to replicate the effect of the famous scene Trumbo wrote in Spartacus, based on the Howard Fast novel, where slaves rise in turn and say “I am Spartacus.” The movie stars try very hard and the in-your-face closeups grab viewers by the lapels, but it doesn't work for a simple reason.
Trumbo’s purpose, like that of this film, is not to reveal but conceal. He’s an elephantine writer, full of wind and freighted with pompous filler. I saw this film in Berkeley, and outside of a chuckle during Trumbo’s meditation on masturbation, nobody clapped or even cheered.
One reading the actors skipped is from Trumbo’s novel, The Remarkable Andrew, in which the ghost of President Andrew Jackson appears from the dead and argues against an alliance with England. “There’s no point in cooking up an alliance with a country that’s already licked,” Jackson says. This came out during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, which is when Trumbo joined the Communist Party USA, at the very time when many others were bailing out. At the time the Nazis and Communists were working together against the Allies, so Dalton Trumbo had to be a special kind of person to prostitute his talent.
That is not explained here, and the Communist Party gets only a few lines, including Trumbo's quip that its members were no more dangerous than the Elks, which received one laugh from a member of the Berkeley audience. Just for the record, it was members of the Communist Party USA, not the Elks, who handed American nuclear secrets to Stalin, the worst mass murderer in history, who is not mentioned a single time in Trumbo.
Capitalism is evil and America is a horrible fascist place, the argument goes, except for my lucrative studio contract, except for my fat bank account, except for my mansion, my swimming pool, my ranch, and my luxury cars. That’s why there were jokes about Robert Rich, one of Trumbo’s pseudonyms. Trumbo, who died in 1976, tells those stories here, along with his one-man show of accredited victimhood, in which he gets some help. Former Nation editor Victor Navasky does a lot of the explaining, and his book Naming Names, a defense of the screen Stalinists, is conveniently displayed beside him.
Here is the familiar footage of the 1947 House Un-American Activities Committee hearings on Communism in Hollywood, which foolishly focused on film content. The screen Stalinists were eager to testify but the strategy of defying the committee came straight from the CPUSA bosses. Trumbo is billed as an independent thinker and contrarian, but that didn’t extend to Party bosses. When they laid down the law, they were obeyed. As John Huston later discovered, the strategy was all about protecting John Howard Lawson, the Party’s straw boss in the studio talent guilds, and like Trumbo, an unpleasant fellow to those of other affiliations, even on the left.
Some studio people were friendly to the committee because the Party, in its heyday, wielded plenty of power in the studios and had made their lives miserable, doing all they could to quash their projects and ruin their careers. Trumbo provides not a hint of that background, nor why the committee came to Hollywood in the first place. It was the result of an investigation of Gerhard Eisler, a Comintern agent whose brother Hanns wrote scores for Hollywood movies. The Comintern isn’t even mentioned a single time.
Footage from films such as Papillon and Spartacus shows how much Trumbo imposed the heroes-versus-informers template. He also has a brief role in Papillon as a prison commandant, which is appropriate. The Hollywood Communists maintained silence as Stalin kangaroo courted their fellow writers and artists into the gulag, or just killed them off. Nothing about that in Trumbo, nothing that would threaten his status as the icon of what, in Hollywood, passes for the Greatest Generation.
Trumbo will likely win an Oscar for best documentary, even though it’s as much a fantasy as Tropic Thunder. Trumbo’s back story and the tale of CPUSA overtures in Hollywood are much more dramatic and action packed, but so far no takers in the dream factories.