Trumbo, the 2015 biopic of communist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo and his campaign to break the Hollywood blacklist, is a charming story of good and evil. Bryan Cranston delivers a campy performance as Trumbo, mugging for the camera and delivering a good fifty per cent of his lines as if they are punchlines. The movie shows the politically incorrect artist dragged before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), thrown in prison, betrayed by his friends, persecuted by his enemies, and ultimately triumphant over injustice, as he breaks the Hollywood blacklist and returns to open acclaim as the winner of two Academy Awards earned under assumed identities. The smooth narrative leaves no question as to who is meant to represent justice, who injustice. Things are clear-cut.
One would expect this to be a highly political movie, but in fact, its political content is vanishing. What is communism? One scene of this movie sees Dalton Trumbo’s daughter pose him this question, and in reply he explains to her that communism is to share one’s sandwiches with the sandwichless. If this strikes you as an exceedingly weak foundation on which to base one’s radical political activism, you are not wrong; and strangely enough, the movie seems to corroborate this point. Louis C.K. plays a fictional fellow blacklistee who accuses Trumbo of being a political dilettante (a “swimming pool socialist,” in the parlance of the day), and points out that if communism were truly to triumph in the United States, Trumbo’s ranch would be expropriated from him. The movie doesn’t press the point, and these two scenes, suggestive but not at all substantive, are the movie’s most detailed look at political ideology. All other political actions in the movie—legal investigations, private conflicts, industry blacklists—are portrayed as the results of sheer factionalism.
In real life, Dalton Trumbo was an active and involved member of the Communist Party of the United States (CPUSA) between 1943 and 1948, although by his account his sympathies dated back a decade before, and in 1956 he briefly rejoined the party out of what appears to be pure pigheadedness. Party membership, he later recalled, “was an essential part of being alive and part of the time at a very significant period in history.” That “very significant period in history,” incidentally, coincided with the heyday of Stalinism. “It is inherently improbable that the Soviet Union would employ a Communist as an espionage agent, or the American Communist Party as a vehicle of espionage,” Trumbo argued later in life. In fact, as Harvey Khler, John Earl Haynes, and Fridrikh Firsov’s book The Secret World of American Communism (Yale University Press, 1995) documents in detail, the CPUSA was directly funded and closely directed by the Comintern.
More broadly, the communist and fellow-traveling American left of the time was closely attuned to Stalinist strategy. The Soviet-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, for example, was defended vociferously by the communist-sympathizing left in the US, leading to bitter fights with liberal leftists who advocated entering World War II as Britain’s ally. Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, however, instantly transformed communist sympathizers into supporters of the war. Dalton Trumbo’s own political advocacy reflected this whiplash-inducing reversal: in 1941 he spoke at a mass meeting at which he squarely opposed the US government’s lend-lease program designed to aid Britain, whereas in 1942 he was giving speeches demanding that the allies open a second front against Germany in order to relieve the Soviet Union and even removing his anti-war novel Johnny Got His Gun from publication.
Aiming to sustain Popular Front politics and American-Soviet friendship after the war was over, the CPUSA’s longtime General Secretary, Earl Browder, attempted to transform the party into the “Communist Political Association,” an interest group that he believed would “correspond more exactly to the American political tradition.” Moscow was not amused, and a prominent critical article by the French communist bigwig Jacques Duclos was immediately recognized by American communists as a warning from the Kremlin. Browder was promptly expelled from the Party. Blacklisted actress Jean Rouverol Butler recalled the interminable arguments that this crisis provoked: waking up at two A.M., she once overheard Trumbo declaring that either the Communist Political Association’s strategy was correct or Lenin’s was, and he preferred to think that Vladimir Ilyich was in the right. In this light, the scenes of pedantic Marxist disputation in the Coen Brothers’ recent comedy Hail Caesar may be more true to life than Trumbo. Many American leftists failed to see the humor in the Moscow consensus, however, and a good number of CPUSA members who had joined the party during the war dropped out when they realized the coercive realities of the Leninist line.
When Trumbo and the other “nineteen unfriendly witnesses” were called before HUAC in 1947, Hollywood sent them off with the acclaim of a star-studded PR organization called the Committee for the First Amendment. Their strident, uncooperative appearances before the House Committee, however, left their erstwhile allies dismayed. Trumbo, for instance, racked up an immediate Godwin’s Law violation by telling HUAC they had “produced a capital city on the eve of its Reichstag fire” (dialogue omitted in the film). Ultimately, ten of the witnesses, including Trumbo, were cited for contempt of Congress and jailed. The strategy of both accuser and accused was questionable on legal and prudential grounds, and later defendants were on much more solid ground in pleading the fifth and thus avoiding criminal charges.
Back in Hollywood, the Motion Picture Association of America, a private trade association, released the Waldorf Statement, which initiated the infamous blacklist against the Hollywood Ten and many other accused communists. Dalton Trumbo settled a case for breach of contract against the parent company of MGM out of court for a substantial sum. In exploring the stress and conflict that the blacklist imposed on Trumbo’s career and family life, the new movie is at its most interesting. Trumbo’s children did encounter ostracism at school, and in reality the entire family relocated to Mexico for an extended period (like the court settlement, not depicted in the movie). Trumbo made ends meet with hack work while still pursuing his craft; and by finally taking credit for his work on Spartacus and two earlier Oscar-award-winning scripts, he broke the power of the blacklists.
Later in life, Trumbo would come to believe that American communists had used the Hollywood Ten “for every left-wing cause that came down the pike,” and that the secretive behavior of American communists had been a mistake. Still, in the television interview in which he acknowledged his authorship of the story of The Brave One, he claimed to see a “direct parallel” between his situation and that of Boris Pasternak in the Soviet Union. He bitterly denounced the “immoral assertion of power over the most private thoughts of men and the assertion by government that it has the power to compel men to tell, to recant, to disgrace themselves, to swear they were idiots, to revoke their past and to spit on their work. This is what government wants in great or less degree over the world and this is what nobody can do.” “I will not make recantation of error,” he declared.
This vignette reveals much that is interesting about the story of Trumbo: his stubbornness, eloquence, passion, and pride, but also his blindness to the difference between the Soviet Union’s repression of dissent and what he encountered in the US, which even at its worst was the result of social and commercial pressures. Trumbo’s character and story could be made into a much more interesting and probing movie, but in this case Hollywood has preferred to make a fluffy bit of self-congratulation in which good and bad are always easily defined, and the nature of communism is nearly forgotten.