March 26th 2016

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Articles from this issue:

ROYAL COMMISSION INTO SEXUAL ABUSE: J'accuse...! A travesty of justice

CANBERRA OBSERVED Turnbull's grand plan coming apart it seems

EDITORIAL Defence White Paper: rhetoric outpaces action


DOMESTIC AND FAMILY VIOLENCE Is not family breakdown the real issue?

ECONOMICS Oil offers resistance to free market's operation

HISTORY OF TAIWAN Kaohsiung Incident opens road to democracy

LAW AND SOCIETY Section 18C may render all speech "inoffensive"

VICTORIAN PARLIAMENT Risk to democracy, rights in health complaints bill

RESEARCH Transgenderism: treat it as a mental illness

MUSIC In deliberate pursuit of accidental sounds: Arve Henriksen

CINEMA AND SOCIETY Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

CINEMA Hailing the Golden Era: Hail Caesar!

BOOK REVIEW Diminished expectations

BOOK REVIEW 12 million refugees

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Hollywood writes in "hero" part for Trumbo

by Bill James

News Weekly, March 26, 2016

In the 1930s, journalist Malcolm Muggeridge fought to expose the Holodomor, “Uncle Joe” Stalin’s manufactured famine which killed millions of Ukrainians.

Brian Cranston of 

Breaking Bad plays Trumbo.

Twenty years later, he gleefully ridiculed Senator Joe McCarthy and his smearing, bullying tactics.

Muggeridge exemplifies the integrity and consistency of those activists who opposed both the Josephs, Russian and American, from a liberal democratic position. Unfortunately screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, whose 1950s experience of being blacklisted as one of the Hollywood Ten is the subject of this film, was not one of them.

In 1943 Trumbo formalised his earlier admiration of communism by actually joining the party, which was at that time tantamount to a declaration of loyalty to Stalin.

It is true that at the time the Soviet Union was fighting Nazi Germany, but only because it had been forced to. For the two years before Germany’s invasion of the USSR in 1941, Stalin had enthusiastically supported the 1939 Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which had given him and Hitler the opportunity to gang-rape Poland.

Trumbo’s decision to commit himself to Stalinism was made not only in the light of these recent events, but also in the knowledge of earlier atrocities: the Ukraine Famine (1932–33) and the Great Terror (1934–38).

There is therefore a terrible irony in the film’s portrayal of Trumbo’s standing up for trade unions (which were non-existent in the USSR) and piously commending the U.S. constitution and its First Amendment right to free speech (something not only illegal in the Soviet Union, but carrying lethal consequences for anyone brave or foolish enough to attempt it).

The film makes great play with menacing FBI agents turning up in black cars, but the historically literate will be immediately reminded of NKVD agents in similar vehicles arriving in the wee hours of the morning to haul their prey off to the Lubyanka, where they met fates far worse than those suffered by McCarthy’s targets.

Trumbo refused to testify to the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee), and as a result unjustly lost his job and served an 11-month jail term.

In the “workers’ paradise” that Trumbo venerated, those who refused to confess to ludicrous crimes at the Moscow show trials were tortured until they did, and then liquidated.

Ethel Rosenberg was the only innocent who died under McCarthyism, whereas the absolute minimum estimate of Stalin’s guiltless victims is nine million.

The point of these facts is not to trivialise the injustices committed during the McCarthy era, which were all too real. Nor is it to argue that because many of McCarthy’s accusations were later found to be true – it turned out that there had been communist agents in the State Department and elsewhere – his unscrupulous methods can be excused on the grounds that dangerous times demand rough and ready remedies.

No, instead it is to remember that the moral compromises of communist sympathisers such as Trumbo rendered them ineligible to condemn McCarthyite excesses, something about which the film, wilfully or ignorantly, has nothing whatsoever to say.

The film has a great deal to say, however, about Hollywood anti-communists such as gossip journalist Hedda Hopper and actor John Wayne. Its self-indulgent (if sometimes justified) lampooning of them would be a lot easier to accept if it had similarly punctured Trumbo’s hypocrisy.

Dalton Trumbo is a classic illustration of the Cold War “useful idiot”, and this biopic represents a bizarre, leftwing “Cold War retro” attempt to deck him out as a hero. That being said, it must also be admitted that Trumbo is quite entertaining, particularly in its portrayal of the behind-the-scenes manoeuvring in the film industry.

Brian Cranston, who has become a household name as a result of television drama series Breaking Bad, plays the title role very competently, and his co-actors, such as the ubiquitous John Goodman, certainly deliver.

Anyone who can remember the 1950s and early ’60s will wallow in nostalgia over the cars, clothes, music and Hollywood glamour, and go all misty-eyed over childhood memories of seeing for the first time the movies for which Trumbo wrote the screenplay, such as Exodus and Spartacus.

There is no nudity or explicit sex in Trumbo.

Its moral dubiety – in particular that of Joseph McCarthy and Dalton Trumbo – is limited to the spheres of politics and personal ethics.

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