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Out of Left Field: Trumbo Gets Oscar Nomination for Sympathetic Treatment of Communist

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Trumbo, a Hollywood movie with big name actors and cutting edge production values, portrays communists and by extension their principles in a sympathetic light. And now Bryan Cranston, playing the blacklisted Trumbo, got nominated for the best actor Oscar at the January 14th Academy Award announcements.

Democrats come off in the movie as cowards and quislings, while Republicans are mean-spirited corrupt bullies. Besides being somewhat historically accurate, Trumbo is a thoroughly engrossing entertainment experience with drama, intelligent dialogue, and flashes of humor. All that and without gratuitous sex and violence.

Little wonder then that the mainstream media have been less than enthusiastic about a depiction of American history that is critical of their corporate sponsors. The New York Times dismissed the film as hagiography. In fact, the film incorporates the famous eulogy of Ring Lardner Jr.:

“At rare intervals, there appears among us a person whose virtues are so manifest to all, who has such a capacity for relating to every sort of human being, who so subordinates his own ego drive to the concerns of others, who lives his whole life in such harmony with the surrounding community that he is revered and loved by everyone with whom he comes in contact. Such a man Dalton Trumbo was not.”

Trumbo is the story of the real-life Dalton Trumbo, a leading Hollywood screen writer and recipient of two Oscars, who was blacklisted from working in Hollywood in 1950 because of this membership in the Communist Party USA and did hard time in the federal penitentiary because of his principled refusal to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee’s (HUAC) witch-hunt.

Forced to scrape out a living writing movie scripts at cut-rate compensation and under pseudonyms, Trumbo finally triumphs when the blacklist is broken by actor Kirk Douglas, who compels his studio to openly credit Trumbo for the screenplay of the blockbuster film Spartacus, and when director Otto Preminger likewise credits Trumbo for Exodus.

The film ends with the rehabilitation of those blacklisted in Hollywood, but does not go on to expose how anti-communism has persisted and taken new forms to the present day, including undermining unions and third parties. That story will have to wait for another movie.

Though the blacklist formally ended in 1960, as recently as 1991, a Hollywood film about the blacklist ironically repeated the sordid history it was supposedly critiquing. Life-long Marxist and former blacklist victim Abe Polonsky wrote a roughly autobiographical screenplay for the film Guilty by Suspicion, only to have director Irwin Winkler rewrite the story. The protagonist played by Robert De Niro was changed from a committed communist to an apolitical liberal.

Polonsky had his name removed from the credits, refused the substantial executive producer fees, and commented: “I wanted it to be about communists because that’s the way it really happened…They didn’t need another story about a man who was falsely accused.”

How refreshing it is to see a film like Trumbo written from the point-of-view of the communist victim, which suggests why Roger Ebert gave Guilty by Suspicion a rave review back then, while the contemporary RogerEbert.com’s unfavorable review of Trumbo is all about the communist menace and little about the film.

“Why the lies of ‘Trumbo’ matter,” a San Francisco Chronicle op-ed, dedicates itself to exorcizing the ghost of Stalin from the American polity. The author, Michael Bernick, a self-described fellow traveler in the “anti-communist left,” accuses Trumbo of being an “apologist” for all manner of political indiscretions associated with his membership in the Communist Party.

If we were to follow Mr. Bernick’s logic, we should be asking him some questions too. In his opinion piece, he champions Michael Harrington, who infamously opposed US withdrawal from Vietnam in contradiction to the majority of the anti-war left at the time. And talking about “silencing critics,” what about Harrington’s shameful red-baiting the then newly formed Student’s for a Democratic Society’s (SDS) founding statement? Or Harrington’s in effect siding with Reagan on the PATCO strike.

Not only is a communist favorably portrayed in Trumbo as was Warren Beatty’s character in the 1981 film Reds, but in Trumbo the ethical basis of communism is deftly laid out. In a delightful vignette, the film shows Trumbo’s young daughter asking her father if he is a communist, to which he answers in the affirmative. The daughter pauses, reflects, and then asks if she’s a communist. The father answers with a question: if you had your favorite sandwich ready for lunch but someone else had nothing to eat, what would you do? “Share” says the daughter. The father replies, “then you’re a little communist.”

In another delicious scene, the character portraying John Wayne confronts Trumbo, questioning Trumbo’s dedication to his country. Trumbo responds that John Wayne spent World War II “stationed on a film set, wearing makeup, shooting blanks.”

Before you leave the theatre – if you have not already seen Trumbo, which you should – wait through the closing credits. At the end is a newsreel clip of the real-life Trumbo talking about the toll that living under the blacklist had on his daughter, which ties the whole political lesson of the movie together and demonstrates a remarkable fidelity between the movie portrayal of Trumbo and the actual person.

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Roger Harris is on the board of the Task Force on the Americas, a 32-year-old anti-imperialist human rights organization.

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