There won’t be any elementary schools named after Dalton Trumbo, nor will the National Park Service be designating any historical markers in his honor any time soon. We’re just as unlikely to see any Congressional declarations for an official holiday, a monument on the National Mall, or even a token inclusion in an important speech. No, James Dalton Trumbo (1905-1976) is largely forgotten these days, both by the government that once destroyed him, and the citizenry he fought so hard to inspire, and yet his actions, so belittled in his time and for years thereafter, are the stuff of almost unimaginable heroism. Americans tend to believe that courage is best expressed, if not exclusively so, on the battlefield of honor, and reward such heroes in kind with unending tribute, deference, and celebration. Removing all context (all wars are the same, thereby eliminating the need to distinguish between thwarting aggression and ensuring cheap crude prices), such men are oversimplified to the point of caricature; they risked all for king and country, and deserve only the highest accolades as a result. But what of the warrior who fires not a shot, or the man who believes solely in the sanctity of conscience? Where is his ticker-tape parade? His teary-eyed salute? Rather than even the faintest of praise, Americans like Dalton Trumbo (and the rest of the Hollywood Ten) are harassed, ridiculed, and worst of all, cast into the pit of indifference; a lonely spot at first, but quickly filled to the brim with most of our best and brightest.
Peter Askin’s Trumbo, based on Christopher Trumbo’s play, is by far the most rousing, patriotic film of the year, which, because it involves not war, bloodshed, nor the roar of gunfire, will be dismissed by the reactionary mainstream as yet another soft-headed romance with the red menace. As a documentary, it is spirited, exhaustive, and engaging (interviews and film clips are mixed with staged readings of Dalton’s letters), but as a piece of history, it is a painful reminder of how few people even care to remember the McCarthy era beyond a few dusty academics and nostalgic artists. Many are familiar with “McCarthyism” as a tactic (and often cite it whenever smears dominate political discourse), but how often is its utter cruelty given more than a passing glance? Not only did the witch hunt era (begun years before McCarthy himself was even a household name) end careers, send law-abiding Americans to jail, and foster a climate of fear and betrayal, it removed the Constitution itself from the center of American life. From then on, it would be trampled at leisure, ignored when convenient, and used not as a bulwark against tyranny and authoritarianism, but rather as a cynical tool to impose the very same. Trumbo captures that era with wit and resignation to be sure, but the events seem less a trip down memory lane than a shameful recitation of current events. We’d like to think that we’ve escaped the evil of those years, especially since McCarthy himself was driven out of the Senate in drunken disgrace, but the very style — indictment and conviction with only the whiff of innuendo to suffice as evidence – defines the culture down to its rotten, vile roots.
Throughout, Dalton Trumbo comes across as he should, given his life: wry, charming, fiercely intelligent, and extremely difficult and cantankerous when the mood strikes, which is quite often, thankfully. As an author and screenwriter, he is one of Hollywood’s most prolific and honored (even receiving an Oscar for The Brave One, which he could not accept, as it was “won” with a pseudonym), and as a father and husband, he appears to have been both doting and demanding. Despite his jail sentence (one year for contempt of Congress, which he cheerfully admitted he had) and hasty moves — a lack of work forced the family to Mexico for a stretch — his wife and children remained his loyal companions, never once pressuring the old man to suck it up, betray confidences, and put food on the table once again. Dalton also spoke to his children in a manner unthinkable today, using elevated language and uninhibited sexual frankness to explain to his son why masturbation was not only without shame, but a pursuit to be cultivated and enjoyed whenever possible. Fortunately, we hear the letter in question in its entirety, and our laughter is due in part to our humiliation and having fallen so far from the parental ideal. To Dalton, kids were best served by maturity and wisdom, not overprotection and condescension. Then again, the Trumbo brood had to grow up in a hurry, what with dad being hunted down like a dog for his expression of real American values. More than any phony speech or hypocritical lesson, the kids learned all too well what life in these United States really meant, and how fealty to law and order meant less a reverence for our founding documents than a maniacal lust for power and control.
Dalton’s letters — sad, triumphant, and laced with anger — are read with emotion and grit intact by a wealth of talent: Michael Douglas, Paul Giamatti, Joan Allen, and Liam Neeson, among others. Anticipating a distraction, the mini performances were wonderfully pure, highlighting Trumbo’s brilliance, yes, but also his humanity. For it is Dalton’s stature that needs constant reinforcement, especially in light of our country’s near-pathological refusal to honor anyone who uses their mind to defend the nation’s honor. While a man like John McCain can use his time in a box to deflect criticism and win hearts for his presidential run, Mr. Trumbo is reduced to a historical footnote for daring to suggest a man’s ideals are his concern alone. And while McCain’s bombing runs and broken limbs did little but massacre civilians and protect capital, Trumbo sold his house, hid from the authorities, and lived like a criminal to uphold his First Amendment rights of speech and association. So why, then, do we lionize the former, and treat the latter with derision, suspicion, and open hostility? The easy answer, of course, is to offer American ignorance as a defense; that few bother to know, let alone understand, the Constitutional safeguards that make us virtually unique in world history. As Trumbo himself offers in the film, we’d gladly jettison the whole damn thing — from “We the People” to the final punch of punctuation — for a few squares and sense of security. He’s too much a of a gentleman to say so, but in reality, Americans are too damned stupid to deserve a document so logical and elegant. It’s the part of the “ideal America” that conveniently gets left out whenever demagogues and fraudulent flyboys cast their eyes skyward and speak softly of the land they love.
“What’s democracy, dad?”, a young boy asks in Trumbo’s Johnny Got His Gun. “Something to do with young men killing each other, I imagine,” dad replies. “For democracy, any man would give his only begotten son.” Such left-wing anti-war sentiments exposed Trumbo to attack, yet the essence of his truths continue to haunt the American conscience. Trumbo also sacrificed — much of his adult life was spent in the shadows, scraping by without the right to earn a living — but it is a testament to our balls-first approach to valor that places his actions well behind putting a bullet into a fellow human being, simply because he was declared an “enemy” by the man’s ruling elite. Defending one’s country via the blade is totally without meaning when examined in this context, and for the life of me, I can’t think of a single instance since the ceremony aboard the U.S.S. Missouri when it’s ever been an issue. Hysteria and madness ruined Trumbo’s life, and yet he remains the burr in the saddle of freedom because he asked a few questions before signing away his self-respect. Undoubtedly, there will be some who dismiss the old coot as a mere screenwriter; hardly the stuff of legends or manly protectors of hearth and home. But outside of the freedom to think as we like, what else have we? It shouldn’t be necessary, but Trumbo also fought in war, adding to the sense of moral outrage at his eventual treatment by armchair assassins. It speaks volumes about the man, then, that he chose his stubborn defense of the written word (rather than the sword) to define his legacy for future generations. And that a Constitutional right to privacy does in fact exist, both as original intent and for all time.