TRUMBO And The Dynamics Of Fear: It’s Ravages, It’s Ruins, & It’s Undoing

“Now the truth of the matter is that there are a lot of things people don’t understand. Take the Einstein theory. Take taxes. Take love. Do you understand them? Neither do I. But they exist. They happen.” – Dalton Trumbo

Dalton Trumbo is right. Things we don’t understand do happen. And, some things we don’t understand invoke intense fear. Jay Roach and John McNamara’s timely and historical film, Trumbo, illuminates the terrors set off by the anti-Communist hysteria of the late 40’s and 50’s. Out of these dark days of the Cold War came persecutors and their victims, evidenced in the blacklisting of anyone associated with Communist ideology. Trumbo tells the story of one blacklisted group: the Hollywood Ten and its key member, Dalton Trumbo. How Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) managed his fear is at the heart of this film.

Dalton Trumbo, one of the most successful early screenwriters in Hollywood, was a card-carrying member of the Communist party. He believed in certain communist principles. He wasn’t a spy and he had no intention of selling classified information to Russia or undermining America and its values. In fact, he was a true American patriot, wanting only to help working class people (like his own parents and his younger self) have a better life.

Contrary to vicious allegations, he wasn’t covertly trying to infiltrate people with propaganda in his scripts. His values were humanistic. When his young daughter, Niki (Madison Wolfe), asked him if she was a communist too, here’s how Trumbo helped her to answer that question: “If you had a sandwich and your friend had no lunch, what would you do?” When she said, without hesitation, she’d share it, he answered: “That’s communism.”

The Ravages Of Fear

Yet fear is a terrible thing. It creates suspicions. It tears people apart. It immobilizes. It shuts down clear thinking and reason. Fear is most destructive when suspicions turn to paranoia, and paranoia makes people disown their fears and project them into others. The paranoid fantasies of many, in the face of what was known as “The Red Menace,” resulted in the persecution, marginalization, and punitive treatment of Communist ideological sympathizers. That’s what happened to Dalton Trumbo – for supporting disarmament, civil rights, rights of workers to organize, and basic civil liberties.

His aims were egalitarian. Yet, the paranoid person must prove that the menace is truly out there and that those people deserve to fall. This kind of paranoia was at the root of the House Un-American Activities Committee investigations, and subsequent imprisonment of Trumbo and other members of the Hollywood Ten for contempt of Congress when they upheld their First Amendment rights. It’s also at the root of racism, anti-Semitism and homophobia. Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), former actress turned Hollywood gossip columnist, is a prime example of one of fear’s ruins: bringing other people down.

The Ruins Of Fear

There are other ruins of fear. Take Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) for example, Trumbo’s friend turned foil. He was one of the saddest ruins in Hollywood: a man who, terrorized by the potential loss of work, loss of prestige, and loss of income – sold out.

Denial, Passing the Buck, Selling Out

Here’s how it works psychologically:

Pass the buck to someone else. Say it wasn’t me. Sell out your friends by disassociating yourself from who they are, who you were, and even your former ideals. These are common reactions to fear. This was Edward G. Robinson. A friend and supporter of Dalton Trumbo’s and a part of the group of Hollywood intellectuals who gathered to discuss left wing and Communist ideals.

That is until he had too much to lose. He betrayed his friend, named names, said he was “duped,” and denied involvement. He made Trumbo and the others sacrificial lambs. He thought he saved his hide. But instead, he lived with regret and guilt, and didn’t work so much anyway. Those were the costs of Edward G. Robinson’s fear. Dalton Trumbo’s were different.

Bullying Under Pressure

Trumbo had stresses too much for anyone to take – imprisoned for his beliefs, blacklisted, and banned from work. Trying to stand up to forces that want to destroy you is exhausting and brings it’s own kind of fear. There’s helplessness. There’s anxiety about survival. Dalton Trumbo had a family to support. He had to keep working in any way he could, even under the table, with pseudonyms, and on sub-par films for the likes of Frank King (John Goodman). When King told him, “We make crap,” Trumbo’s comeback was: “I’m a screenwriter. If I couldn’t write crap, I’d starve.” He had no other choice.

Compromising his principles though, and working day and night to make ends meet, made him desperate for control wherever he could get it. That place of power was over his wife and kids. He needed their help to keep his writing business running and he drove them without concern or notice of their needs. In one of the more powerful scenes in the movie, his wife, Cleo (Diane Lane), confronts him with what he’s become. With her help, he must face the way he’s turned against the people he loves the most. He’s something he’s never been before – a bully. That was one spoil of Trumbo’s fear.

The Undoing Of Fear

The only way to undo fear is not to let it undo you. That means facing your fear, understanding its origins, and working those origins out. These are the kinds of things I help my patients with. Dalton and Cleo Trumbo did their best to stand up against fear in spite of those who tried to stop them. They’d have had no time for therapy. They were both just trying to stay afloat.

Luckily, they did. Cleo held the family together. They worked. They survived. And, in the end, thanks to Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) for Exodus and Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) for Spartacus, Trumbo got the screen credit and awards he was due. Yet, even standing strong, maintaining his dignity and the courage of his convictions, barely sleeping, and not giving in – takes its toll.

Dalton Trumbo’s psychological feelings and reactions had little time to be expressed. They did come out in his bullying. But, mostly he held his anger and resentment in, using Benzo’s and Scotch and his famous writing-in-the-bathtub to keep him going and calm him down. Of course he was a victim, everyone was.

No one emerged unscathed. Dalton Trumbo fought his battles successfully, but paid too great a price. He, and those who were blacklisted, suffered a kind of soul murder. To his credit, though, Dalton Trumbo saw he wasn’t the only victim. Toward the end of his life, he understood and forgave those who victimized him, seeing that they, too, were the victims of their paranoid anti-communist fears.

This piece is dedicated to David James Fisher, Ph.D., psychoanalyst and cultural historian in private practice in Los Angeles – from whom I have learned a lot.

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