In most countries, whether they are democracies, dictatorships, theocracies, republics, or whatever else countries like to call themselves these days, the citizens have very few rights. The rights belong to those with the power, whether it is a consular officer who rejects your visa application without looking at your documents and commands you to leave the building immediately or an editor who passes on a story you have pitched, then assigns the story to his girlfriend. If you don’t have any clout, you don’t have any rights. It doesn’t matter if you are in Chile, North Korea, Iraq, or the United States of America, where a certain dentist sues a non-English speaking immigrant for non-payment of treatment to which he never agreed. Having no lawyer to produce a dentist to challenge the allegations of the dentist who is defrauding him, the judge, who is very friendly with the dentist, rules in the dentist’s favor. He appeals the decision, but is sent to the wrong office to file the appeal and pay the filing fees, and so the appeal is never filed, and the dentist garnishes his paycheck for the money he has robbed. And he has a right to do this to you because the non-English speaking immigrant has no power to stop him.
“Trumbo” is based on the life of Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, who, along with nine others, . serves a jail term for demanding his rights in a court of law, and is, upon his release, put on a blacklist that prevents him from employment within the film industry. The story of the Hollywood Ten, as they were dubbed, is a sorry chapter in US history, one that has been passed down for six decades as an isolated case of shame. The truth is that more subtle forms of blacklisting were in effect long before Trumbo came along, and remain in effect to this day. So the point of seeing this movie should not be to get in a huff over injustices of the past, but to experience this story from the perspective of current losses of freedom in the service of the miscarriages of justice, and to illuminate the obscure causes of other kinds of writers who are silently but surely being deprived of their rights.
Around the world, journalists who go against the grain are losing their jobs. Some are political oppositionists; others are arts writers who offended a corporate advertiser with a negative reaction to a mediocre product. All of them are human beings who depend upon the existence of a free press to practice their livelihoods. The Hollywood blacklist silenced a handful of left-leaning screenwriters, while the current thinning of the ranks of journalists signifies the beginning of the intentional, systematic destruction of what I term, for lack of a better phrase, the thinking class.
Take the US presidential debates. The non-thinking class is having a great time following the schoolyard taunts and curses of the fourteen or so Republican contenders, while the Democrats, blindly willing to vote for whatever candidate the party chooses, is not even watching. So when Donald Trump is vilified for mentioning Hillary Clinton’s tardiness in returning to the podium after taking a bathroom break, nobody retaliates by mentioning that this is the second time out of three debates that she has returned late, the first time merely delaying the second part of the debate, but this time entering the room while her opponent Bernie Sanders was delivering his response to a question. Applause from Clinton’s cheering section rudely interrupted the proceedings. Anybody watching all the debates could clearly see the disturbances were well planned, part of the Clinton strategy to draw attention to herself and diminish the stature of her opponent. But if you did not watch the debates, and had nothing to go on except the reports of Trump making fun of Clinton taking too long in the bathroom, you would be accepting a pre-fab opinion on the event without any real knowledge or insight about it. Meanwhile, the Democratic party is urging its supporters to sign a pledge to vote for whatever candidate is nominated. If those who support Sanders sign this pledge, they are sending a message to the party that the support shown for Sanders during the primaries will have little or no effect on voter turnout for Clinton, even if Sanders is the people’s choice.
In 1968, the Democrats were not so complacent. Thousands risked life and limb to protest the nomination of Hubert Humphrey at the democratic convention in Chicago. The party didn’t want either McGovern or McCarthy, and went with the despised Humphrey, who lost to Richard Nixon. Big surprise. But in the sixties, despite the corrupt politics and genocidal foreign policies, there was intelligence on both ends of the spectrum. Television would broadcast weekly debates between right wing intellectual William F. Buckley and the left wing opposition in the persons of Gore Vidal and Norman Mailer. The country, interested in both sides of the debate, listened to what each side had to say. The country was going to hell, but the intellectual climate was razor sharp.
One of the central differences between debate then and now was that both sides would begin with agreed upon premises. The basic facts were seldom disputed. The differences of opinion grew out of what each side made of those facts, and how one projected their interests would be affected. Today, approaches taken by candidates on an issue are likely to represent the demographic they are trying to impress, whether or not that stand reflects their personal views or anticipates what they will do if voted into office.
Outside the immediate political sphere lies the countless mouths that have been shut because those in power don’t like what is being said. Harvest records signed a two record agreement with Morrissey, then suppressed his first release, “World Peace is None of Your Business,” because they despised it. Now the record is impossible to buy, because Harvest owns it and refuses to sell it. As a result, Morrissey vows he will never again perform in the United Kingdom. Tori Amos is another artist whose artistic conflicts with recording companies have resulted in suppression of material. She has finally put all that behind her with the advent of her own recording company. Amos and Morrissey are two of the very finest writers in the field of popular music, and both struggle in an industry that suppresses intelligence.
But maybe I’m getting off the track here. Back to Trumbo, both the real one and the character portrayed by Bryan Cranston in Jay Roach’s semi-comic bio pic. Cranston’s performance is good, although he makes Trumbo, who remained an ardent Stalinist even after it was revealed that his genocidal policies had cost the lives of between 20-60 million people, into a cuddly curmudgeon. The real Trumbo was a self-centered bastard who would write any piece of shit to maintain the high standard of living to which he was accustomed. While it was unfair that he was forced to work anonymously for much less money than he was worth, it is a disservice to the historical record to ignore the fact that he clung to his adoration of the psychotic and paranoid Stalin long after most of the Hollywood communists had left the party. Trumbo had an essentially morbid nature that received its fullest expression in the one film he directed. Based on his own novel, 1971’s “Johnny Got His Gun” is one of the most disturbing and terrifying films I have ever seen, its bleak vision of human existence so depraved that it could only be released to theaters as a horror film by exploitation czar Jerry Gross. Not that it was bad. It is a unique, one of a kind film that leaves the viewer as shattered and alone as the unfortunate protagonist in whose head the film takes place. A stronger statement against war has never been put on film.
But that doesn’t make Trumbo the winky-eyed saint played by Cranston. Or even the cranky iconoclast who yells at his daughter for coming into the bathroom while he is boozing it up and working on a script in the bathtub. All this makes an entertaining and heart-wrenching movie, but it is not Trumbo and it is not the Hollywood Ten. That bunch would invite young people trying to break into the movies to parties that promised industry connections, and what the guests walked into was a high-pressure indoctrination into the Communist party. Later, when some of these people were subpoenaed and asked to name names, they felt no loyalty to these political evangelists, and became friendly witnesses. Not that this is any excuse to become a fink, but that is the way it was, and that side of it is never shown in contemporary accounts of the era.
Today, young hopefuls in Hollywood face some of the same pressures from the power elite wearing the red armbands. And it doesn’t just happen in Hollywood. And the pressure is not only applied by the leftists. There are just as many scumbags on the far right, forcing their employees and neighbors to embrace their political views. Wherever there is somebody who can flip the coin on our future, there is the threat of the loss of personal freedom. Every Donald Trump has a mirror image in a Hillary Clinton. The problem is not only what the followers of such demagogues are being turned into, but what they are prevented from becoming. The individual sacrifices his originality to a mob mentality that pledges, “I will vote for whomever is the nominee of my party.”
While watching Trumbo, I was like anybody else, rooting for the maligned hero of history, loving this character who was possessed by genius, yet had to delve into mediocrity in order to survive in a world that despised greatness. I bought the whole shebang. But after the magic of the movie wore off, I started thinking about what is going on in our own time, and thought it more important to share some of those thoughts with you rather than put my thumb up or down on the movie. If that is the extent of a movie critic’s function, then life as a movie critic is life wasted.