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In Favoring Drama, 'Trumbo' Misses The Mark On History

courtesy of Bleecker Street Media

No one ever suspects that fanciful biopics of people like Marie Curie or John Philip Sousa are accurate biographies. But if a movie touches on significant historical facts, the less it can fabricate. You can't claim that Marie Curie was really a marathon runner or that Sousa was an astronaut. Selma took heat for changing the known actions of President Lyndon Johnson. When director Oliver Stone made JFK and Nixon, he distorted the historical record and his claims to mythology rang hollow.

One of the problems of the new movie Trumbo has to do with turning history into a dramatic movie.

The history Trumbo approaches is tremendously complicated, and getting it straight may be beyond the reach of a two-hour film. Director Jay Roach, and writers John McNamara and Bruce Cook, compress events, make up composite characters and for dramatic value change how things went and who was where when. The result is that the film captures some of the story of Dalton Trumbo, distorts other parts and may leave some viewers wondering, "huh?"

More important, movies can make deliberate historical errors that are then taken for truth.

Dalton Trumbo was born in Montrose, Colorado and raised in Grand Junction. (As an aside, the fountain behind the student center at CU-Boulder is named for him.) He worked at MGM, the richest of the studios, and was maybe the leading screenwriter in America in 1947. He joined the Communist Party for a while – the jangled complexities of that are impossibly hard to render in a movie. Some people joined the party for love of the Soviet Union and a desire to serve Moscow. More joined because in the 1930s and 40s the Communist Party was one of the few organizations in this country that promoted social justice. The Soviet Union was also our great ally in World War II. By the end of the war, though, people who stayed in the party tended to be hard-line Stalinists.

In late 1947, the House Committee on Un-American Activities of the U.S. Congress held hearings to investigate what it called Communist influence in the movies, and got the major studios to agree that no one under suspicion would be allowed to work. Ten Hollywood figures refused to answer the committee's questions on the basis of the First Amendment. They were held in contempt of Congress and blacklisted by the studios. When the Supreme Court let the convictions stand, all 10 went to prison, and the committee then got many frightened Hollywood figures either to testify against each other or be blacklisted themselves.

The Committee never identified a single film as an example of Communist influence. In fact, all of the Hollywood Ten had worked on patriotic wartime films. As a delicious sidelight, the chairman of the committee, J. Parnell Thomas of New Jersey, went to prison shortly afterward for misuse of federal funds. He did time in prison with two of the 10, Ring Lardner Jr. and Alvah Bessie, but not with Trumbo as the film claims.

No one was executed in this shameful episode. The Hollywood Ten went to minimum security prisons for 12 or 14 months. Lives were destroyed, along with hundreds of careers. Families were ruined; there were suicides. Actors were out of luck, but some screenwriters wrote under assumed names or worked with fronts who dealt with the studios. For decades, few knew that Dalton Trumbo wrote Gun Crazy, Roman Holiday or The Brave One.

The movie Trumbo gets the look of the time, and some of the virulent, self-serving and dishonest attacks on people whose politics were out of fashion. The film is nicely acted by Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane, Helen Mirren and John Goodman. It spends too much time explaining what it doesn't know how to explain; it fails to solve the problem of having contemporary actors play 1940s actors whose faces are still iconic; it's out of its league on what people knew and thought.

A movie about witch-hunting, though, is timely.

Howie Movshovitz came to Colorado in 1966 as a VISTA Volunteer and never wanted to leave. After three years in VISTA, he went to graduate school at CU-Boulder and got a PhD in English, focusing on the literature of the Middle Ages. In the middle of that process, though (and he still loves that literature) he got sidetracked into movies, made three shorts, started writing film criticism and wound up teaching film at the University of Colorado-Denver. He continues to teach in UCD’s College of Arts & Media.
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