Thursday, February 4, 2016

Movie Review: Trumbo

WARNING: The following blog post contains a lot of spoilers. If you have not yet seen Trumbo and wish to do so without having the plot given away, then do not read this.

When I first saw the trailer for Trumbo a few months ago, I knew that this was a movie that I wanted to watch. But I also knoew that this was not going to be a movie that I'd be able to watch in a theater in Korea.

Now I'm not saying that the Korean government somehow prevented the movie from being shown in Korea. There is no evidence for that. Also, there are many reasons why a movie might not play in theaters in any particular country. However, considering the fact that Korea is a country where ironic tweets can get you into trouble and where a professor can get indicted for merely holding an unpopular opinion, well, it made it all that much sadder that the movie has not made it to theaters here yet. If anyone needs to watch this movie, it's Koreans.

Bryan Cranston plays the eponymous character, Dalton Trumbo, an eccentric and witty screenwriter (whom I discovered only after having watched the movie that he had penned some of my favorite classic movies such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus) who also happened to be a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America.

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Anyone who is familiar with me and my blog already knows that I am a staunch anti-communist. So before I sat down to watch this movie, I already knew that there was going to be a part of me that would feel uncomfortable knowing that the movie's protagonist was going to be a character who held beliefs that I am fundamentally hostile to.

And there were parts of the movie when I did shake my head a bit. The first moment was early on in the movie when Trumbo explains to his young daughter that if she were willing to share her Ham and Swiss Cheese sandwich with a schoolmate who didn't have any food, that made her a communist. Obviously, in this scene, a father was taking pains to explain to his very young daughter a political opinion that he held. So, the scene would not have made any sense if Cranston's character gave a speech about the virtues of Das Kapital. However, it is obvious that this is more than just a father explaining what communism is to his young daughter. Rather, it was the filmmakers attempt at explaining what communism is to the audience. And as a member of the audience, I felt insulted.

The other moments were when the anti-communists, the bad guys – a meatheaded John Wayne (played by David James Elliott), a vicious Hedda Hopper (played by Helen Mirren), and a slimy J. Parnell Thomas (played by James DuMont) along with other extras – were treated like two-dimensional stock villains. Was John Wayne's anti-communism a result of a him trying to compensate the fact that he did not fight in the Second World War? Was Hedda Hopper really trying to preserve American democracy from what she thought of as a threat that millions of American soldiers were fighting against or was it her way of getting back at a movie industry that forsook her because she had grown old? What about J. Parnell Thomas? Was he simply looking to gain more political power for himself or might there have been other reasons?

None of that was given much attention. That being said, I don't think that the filmmakers ought to be judged too harshly for glossing over the villains. After all, the move itself lasted for about only two hours. So it was obviously impossible to explore every individual's inner psyche. This wasn't the fault of the filmmakers but rather the fault of the medium itself. And that, I think, is all the more reason why I think television shows are becoming increasingly more popular among the audience than movies.

One thing that I think is important to mention, however, is that no one who has ever watched this movie could ever say that Trumbo is pro-communist. Aside from the first scene I mentioned and the brief scenes that Louis CK was in, there was no talk whatsoever about communist ideas. In fact, the whole idea of Trumbo being a communist was made quite silly when Cranston appears in one scene holding a bottle of champagne in each hand exclaiming We're rich!” after he sells the rights to Roman Holiday to Paramount Pictures.

If anyone watched this movie hoping to see a stirring defense of communism, they would have left feeling utterly disappointed. The fact that Trumbo was a communist was treated as though it were a mere coincidence.

In fact, Trumbo himself is probably not the first candidate that even genuine communists might choose to represent as his/her ideal hero because like Louis CK says in the movie, Trumbo talks like a radical but lives like a rich guy. Had Trumbo been a contemporary figure, I have no doubt that many people today would have treated him much like the way people treat Sean Penn (who really deserves to be treated like an idiot).

Not your grandfather's communist!
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No, the movie was not a defense of communism but rather a defense of individual liberty – especially the notion that people are free to think whatever the hell they want.

It simply does not matter what an individual thinks. The only person whom that should be important to is the individual himself. Trumbo was a communist, perhaps an imperfect communist, but he was a genius screenwriter who was able to make movies seem like magic.

That led to another theme of the movie – what a rational individual can produce with his own mind. Just like how Mel Gibson may be a racist (or maybe he is only when drunk) but he is an amazing director and actor and how Ayn Rand may have been an unpleasant harpy but she was an intellectual titan to reckon with, what truly matters is what one is able to bring to the table. Trumbo brought with him a Midas Touch. Every movie he made, even the bad ones, were made terrific because he worked on them.

What does it matter what the individual thinks in his own time when the work that the individual produces is so good that it practically loved by so many?

The fact of the matter is that what people think in the privacy of their own minds do not matter to the State. It is not something that the State should ever be concerned with. So long as people are able to produce works of beauty, and even if they don't, what does it matter what they think in the privacy of their own heads?

However, to this day, the State does remain concerned with such things. When people's lives can be made miserable over a newspaper column, it is obvious that Trumbo's fight is not over.

I don't know if Trumbo will ever be played in Korean theaters. But knowing the rate of piracy that goes on in the country, along with the rate of independent caption making that goes with pirated movies, I hope that millions of Koreans do get to watch this movie – legally or illegally. Preferably legally, of course.

For God knows that one thing that Koreans need, among many things, is the freedom of thought.

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