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


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.

More articles by:

Roger D. Harris is on the State Central Committee of the Peace and Freedom Party, the only ballot-qualified socialist party in California.

Weekend Edition
March 16, 2018
Friday - Sunday
Michael Uhl
The Tip of the Iceberg: My Lai Fifty Years On
Bruce E. Levine
School Shootings: Who to Listen to Instead of Mainstream Shrinks
Mel Goodman
Caveat Emptor: MSNBC and CNN Use CIA Apologists for False Commentary
Paul Street
The Obama Presidency Gets Some Early High Historiography
Kathy Deacon
Me, My Parents and Red Scares Long Gone
Jeffrey St. Clair
Roaming Charges: Rexless Abandon
Andrew Levine
Good Enemies Are Hard To Find: Therefore Worry
Jim Kavanagh
What to Expect From a Trump / Kim Summit
Ron Jacobs
Trump and His Tariffs
Joshua Frank
Drenched in Crude: It’s an Oil Free For All, But That’s Not a New Thing
Gary Leupp
What If There Was No Collusion?
Matthew Stevenson
Why Vietnam Still Matters: Bernard Fall Dies on the Street Without Joy
Robert Fantina
Bad to Worse: Tillerson, Pompeo and Haspel
Brian Cloughley
Be Prepared, Iran, Because They Want to Destroy You
Richard Moser
What is Organizing?
Scott McLarty
Working Americans Need Independent Politics
Rohullah Naderi
American Gun Violence From an Afghan Perspective
Sharmini Peries - Michael Hudson
Why Trump’s Tariff Travesty Will Not Re-Industrialize the US
Ted Rall
Democrats Should Run on Impeachment
Robert Fisk
Will We Ever See Al Jazeera’s Investigation Into the Israel Lobby?
Kristine Mattis
Superunknown: Scientific Integrity Within the Academic and Media Industrial Complexes
John W. Whitehead
Say No to “Hardening” the Schools with Zero Tolerance Policies and Gun-Toting Cops
Edward Hunt
UN: US Attack On Syrian Civilians Violated International Law
Barbara Nimri Aziz
Iraq Outside History
Wilfred Burchett
Vietnam Will Win: The Long Hard Road
Victor Grossman
Germany: New Faces, Old Policies
Medea Benjamin - Nicolas J. S. Davies
The Iraq Death Toll 15 Years After the US Invasion
Binoy Kampmark
Amazon’s Initiative: Digital Assistants, Home Surveillance and Data
Chuck Collins
Business Leaders Agree: Inequality Hurts The Bottom Line
Jill Richardson
What We Talk About When We Talk About “Free Trade”
Eric Lerner – Jay Arena
A Spark to a Wider Fire: Movement Against Immigrant Detention in New Jersey
Negin Owliaei
Teachers Deserve a Raise: Here’s How to Fund It
Kollibri terre Sonnenblume
What to Do at the End of the World? Interview with Climate Crisis Activist, Kevin Hester
Kevin Proescholdt
Secretary of Interior Ryan Zinke Attacks America’s Wilderness
Franklin Lamb
Syrian War Crimes Tribunals Around the Corner
Beth Porter
Clean Energy is Calling. Will Your Phone Company Answer?
George Ochenski
Zinke on the Hot Seat Again and Again
Lance Olsen
Somebody’s Going to Extremes
Robert Koehler
Breaking the Ice
Pepe Escobar
The Myth of a Neo-Imperial China
Graham Peebles
Time for Political Change and Unity in Ethiopia
Terry Simons
10 American Myths “Refutiated”*
Thomas Knapp
Some Questions from the Edge of Immortality
Louis Proyect
The 2018 Socially Relevant Film Festival
David Yearsley
Keaton’s “The General” and the Pernicious Myths of the Heroic South