Thursday, 10 August 2017

Trumbo (4½ Stars)

This is a true story that took place during one of the darkest periods in American history. Although the expression isn't used in the film, I call it the "Communist witch hunt". After the euphoria of winning World War Two the American government began to realise that Russia, their wartime ally, was an evil country intent on world domination. Russia was a Communist country, so the assumption was that Communism was evil as a system. There was a Communist Party in America, so it was assumed that its members were also evil and intended to overthrow the American government to subjugate the country to Russia.

That is very simplistic reasoning. On the other end of the scale we find Dalton Trumbo, Hollywood's highest paid screenwriter, who had equally simplistic reasons for being a Communist, as revealed in a conversation with his 9-year-old daughter Nicky:

"At school you're eating your favourite food. You see that another girl has nothing to eat. What do you do?

1. You tell her to get a job so she can buy food.
2. You lend her the money to buy food and charge her 6% interest.
3. You ignore her completely.
4. You share your food with her.

If you choose the fourth option you're a Communist".

That shows Trumbo's reasoning behind becoming a member of the Communist Party. He wanted to help people. That's all. On the other hand, he was criticised by his fellow Communists. His friend Arlen said to him, "You talk like a radical, but you live like a rich man". We see that in the photo. He lived on a ranch. He owned a large field which contained a lake. His daughter had a pony.

Let's look at the fourth option in Trumbo's Communist Test again. Let's assume there are 30 children in school. Nicky has food and the other 29 have nothing. If she shares her food with everyone else nobody will have enough to eat and everyone will be hungry. It's more sensible to share with just one or two people, so that they at least have enough to eat. Being selective in your help is more sensible.

How do you select? If nobody has food Nicky would share with her best friend. If her brother and sister were in the room she would give them priority. That's the sort of Communism that Dalton Trumbo practised. He was relatively wealthy, but not a millionaire. He didn't spend much on himself, but he wanted his family to live in comfort. He paid the legal costs of his critical friend Arlen. That's the same attitude that I have. I invest in very little luxury for myself, but I want my children to have enough. Maybe I don't give my friends money, but that might just be because I don't have enough money to give. I've never been in a position where I could afford to be generous.

Dalton Trumbo wasn't a traitor. He didn't want to overthrow the American government. He loved America, and he loved democracy. His only crime was that he thought America should be fairer. More money for the poor and less money for the rich. He wanted to persuade the government to spread the wealth, but the self-centred establishment that didn't want to give up any of its privileges misinterpreted what he said. They claimed that he wanted to force them to spread their wealth.

There were many Communists who were persecuted by the American government, but the main targets were those who worked in Hollywood, especially directors and screenwriters. In a way, it's understandable that they had to endure the brunt of the guilt. They were in a position to influence the American public with either direct or implied messages in their films.

All those who were members of the Communist Party or merely suspected of having Communist sympathies were blacklisted and forbidden to work in Hollywood. Dalton Trumbo was one of ten men arrested and imprisoned for his political beliefs, or more accurately for his political affiliations. America was in the grip of anti-Communist hysteria. The good people of America had forgotten the foundation on which America had been built: the freedom of speech. I would add to that the freedom of opinion. As Trumbo aptly puts it in the film, "Everybody has the right to be wrong". Nobody should be arrested or disadvantaged because of his membership of a political or religious group; he should only be judged on the basis of what he says and does.

A subplot in the film is Trumbo's troubled relationship with his daughter Nicky. He loved her, but the government pressure on his life harmed the family. Nevertheless, she followed her father in wanting to do good. When she was older she joined the Civil Rights Movement to fight for the equality of black people in America.

Before watching "Trumbo" I already knew about the Hollywood blacklist, but some details were new to me. For instance, after his release from prison Trumbo was still forbidden to work, so he wrote screenplays under false names. This led to absurd situations. In 1956 he wrote the screenplay for "The Brave One", using the pseudonym Robert Rich. At the Academy Awards Robert Rich won the Oscar for the Best Screenplay, and nobody knew who this person was. It wasn't until he wrote "Spartacus" in 1960 that the political climate was calm enough for him to write under his own name.

I was also quite shocked by the attitudes of actors at the time. John Wayne, of all people, considered Dalton Trumbo to be un-American and a traitor. There was no solidarity between the professionals in the film industry. They took opposite sides in the war on Communism.

Bryan Cranston's acting in the main role is nothing short of magnificent. He was nominated for an Oscar as Best Actor, but didn't win. The award was given to Leonardo DiCaprio for "The Revenant". Once more I'm utterly amazed. The Film Academy chose wrong.

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