idway through Steven Spielberg’s Cold War picture Bridge of Spies, the upstanding lawyer Jim Donovan (Tom Hanks) suffers a shocking attack when his Brooklyn house is raked with gunfire. Donovan has been working selflessly and, according to the movie, patriotically, as the legal counsel to the Soviet spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance).
Then nothing happens. After the gunfire attack, neither Donovan nor anyone else seems particularly interested in finding the culprits and bringing them to justice. Don’t they fear they’re about to be murdered? Wouldn’t they move out of the house in a panic? Why doesn’t anyone in this movie act at all as real people would—shocked and angry and appalled and maybe more than a little irrational?
Those bullets never flew. There is no mention of any such attack in Donovan’s 1964 book Strangers on a Bridge, the primary source material for the movie. It contains a couple of paragraphs of mild irritation describing, for instance, how Donovan felt obliged to obtain an unlisted phone number because drunks were calling to harass him in the middle of the night. Bridge of Spies is a film about the Communist infiltration of the United States, but in Steven Spielberg’s telling, it’s ordinary New Yorkers who seem more repellent than Rudolf Abel as they shoot dirty looks at Donovan when he rides to work on the subway—and then shoot up his home.
Bridge of Spies arrived in the fall at the annual moment when Hollywood begins leveraging history in pursuit of awards glory. Three of the past five Oscar winners for Best Picture were based on true stories, and last year four of the eight Best Picture nominees were fictionalized biographies. A foundation of reality serves to elevate a film’s importance, to reassure the filmmaking community that “the Industry,” as it calls itself, at its best produces more than just meretricious assemblages of gross-out gags and superhero exploits. These films are supposedly driven by a didactic purpose that is meant to inform our lives as citizens and moral thinkers. Revisiting historical dilemmas delivers an imprimatur of seriousness to artists who are keenly sensitive to charges that they are in a frivolous business.
And yet anyone who has made a habit of comparing fact-based films with their real-life antecedents can hardly avoid noticing the shamelessness with which Hollywood alters history both for the sake of a better yarn and to suit its political, indeed polemical, purposes. Last year The Imitation Game portrayed the ingratitude and homophobia of the British state as being so extreme that it investigated code-breaking war hero Alan Turing for being a spy and in so doing exposed him as a homosexual. That didn’t happen; in reality, Turing’s sexuality was revealed when he reported a petty theft and lied about the details. At around the same time came the release of Kill the Messenger, a movie about the disgraced San Jose Mercury News reporter Gary Webb. Webb had purported to show that the CIA was behind the 1980s crack epidemic. The film portrayed Webb, who eventually committed suicide, as a martyr to the truth undone by jealous rivals rather than his own egregiously flawed work. The financial-crisis comedy-drama The Big Short, which is based on well-documented history that happened only seven or so years ago, even makes a joke out of the fictional distortion of the record: A character who hits pay dirt when a fellow financier accidentally leaves a sheaf of tantalizing documents lying around turns to the camera and explains that things didn’t really happen this way but it makes for a better story.
This fall, top-tier talent starred in three major prestige projects—Bridge of Spies, Truth, and Trumbo—that present themselves as needful, even urgent, lessons. Each is built on misleading implications, half-truths, and plain old lies. The purpose is in large part to advance a leftist narrative likely to please the nearly unanimously hard-left blocs of voters who bestow the various critical and trade-group awards. And, in part, to make the filmmakers feel as though they are bravely speaking truth to the unenlightened masses, facts be damned. In this way they are analogues to their own subjects as they see them—courageous men and women who stick to their principles no matter how costly that might be and how ugly the forces arrayed against them are.
ridge of Spies is typical Hollywood myth-making in that it is false on two levels. The lesser level is that of incident, of juicing the details to make a more riveting tale and to create a role more attractive for Hanks, who is so wary of playing any characteristic other than likeable, principled, and trustworthy that he is gradually becoming a sort of Madame Tussaud’s wax figure of himself. So: Donovan’s house wasn’t attacked by gunfire, he didn’t witness East Germans getting gunned down at the Berlin Wall, didn’t get mugged for his overcoat by a gang of East German youths, wasn’t harassed by the East German police, and didn’t have to overcome the hostility of the CIA up to and including the moments at the Glienicke Bridge where Donovan secured the release of both the downed U-2 pilot Francis Gary Powers and a young American economics graduate student named Frederic Pryor, who was being held by East Berlin police. In the film, the CIA is so uninterested in Pryor’s release that the agency effectively works at cross-purposes to Donovan, who insists that both men must be freed. “That was the biggest error,” Pryor said this fall. “It didn’t happen like it did in the movie at all.”
Nor did Pryor dramatically get caught in East Berlin while momentarily venturing from West to East to help a woman at the exact moment when the cement and barbed wire of the Wall were hastily being thrown across that section of Berlin. Pryor didn’t even know until last summer that a movie that dramatized events in his life was in the works (Bridge of Spies had already been filmed by then). He hadn’t been allowed to see, much less comment on, the script.
Given his views, one could make the case that nearly all of Spielberg’s work falls into two categories: children’s films and disguised children’s films.
Spielberg devotes several scenes to the skullduggery of the U-2 spy-plane operations that resulted in the shooting down and capture of pilot Francis Gary Powers in Russia in 1960. The implication is: We spied on them, they spied on us, what’s the difference? As William F. Buckley Jr. used to point out, if one fellow pushes an old lady into the path of an oncoming bus and another pushes her out of the way of same, it won’t do to describe both men as the kind who push old ladies around.
Spielberg and Hanks’s Donovan gives several statements, or sermons, about how the Constitution guarantees the right to legal counsel even for illegal aliens trying to destroy the United States. The Constitution is “what makes us Americans. It’s all that makes us Americans,” Donovan declares. A nice thought, but that still doesn’t obligate Donovan to work for a Soviet agent any more than it obligates any individual lawyer to defend, say, Dylann Roof. If anything, the question of which clients to accept is an issue for ethicists of the Bar, but “I’m defending a spy because the Bar Association asked me to” isn’t quite so resonant a declaration as one that invokes the Constitution. Does Spielberg’s fondness for that document extend to, say, the 10th Amendment? The Second?
Spielberg, like virtually all of Hollywood, either thought Communists in America were a phantom threat (they weren’t), were idealists (not true) or, at worst, that there was little to no moral difference between the Soviet Union and the United States in the Cold War. These are lies on a scale with excusing slavery. They are lies, indeed, comparable to Spielberg’s finding, in Munich, moral equivalence between Mossad and the murderers of the Israeli athletes at the 1972 Summer Olympics. Murderers and their executioners are both guilty of killing, after all. It’s such a jejune view that one could make the case that nearly all of Spielberg’s work falls into two categories: children’s films and disguised children’s films.
More childish than anything in Bridge of Spies, though, is the guffaw-worthy moment in Trumbo, another finger-wagging film, when the Stalinist screenwriter Dalton Trumbo is asked by his daughter what Communism is all about—and he replies that if you were having lunch and noticed someone nearby didn’t have anything to eat, you would of course share your sandwich. As Trumbo well knew, if Josef Stalin had been a lunch lady he would have been the kind who took the sandwiches away from both children and encouraged them to inform on each other before having both of them shot.
Like Bridge of Spies, Trumbo is a film about persecution of Communists in America, and its creators hope that at Oscar time its mediocre quality and mangling of history will be forgiven because of its liberal posturing. Directed by Jay Roach (best known for comedies such as Meet the Parents) and starring Bryan Cranston in an acting performance that may politely be called overemphatic, the film presents its subject, the author of screenplays for films such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus, as a First Amendment hero while his friend Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) comes across as a craven sycophant for telling the House Un-American Activities Committee things it already knew about the widespread Communist ties in Hollywood.
Trumbo’s pacifist World War I novel Johnny Got His Gun was so beloved by Hitler’s Soviet allies that it was serialized in the Daily Worker in 1940.
The word blacklist is itself a scary-sounding piece of propaganda popularized by the left to poison the wells on the era. Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten were simply publicly fired by their employers. There was nothing “black” or secretive about it. The Waldorf Agreement, a policy hashed out by leading executives and producers at the hotel of that name in New York City, led to a press release that announced Trumbo and the rest of the Hollywood Ten were no longer considered fit to work at the studios. The left should not still be feigning outrage at this. It’s entirely reasonable for a private company to terminate someone for holding ideas it considers antithetical to the firm’s values, and the left is usually the first to demand someone lose his job for even mild dissent from prevailing norms, much less doing Stalin’s bidding. If it became public knowledge, in 2015, that a screenwriter was once a paid-up member of the KKK, refused to distance himself from it, and indeed was successfully sneaking pro-Klan messages into screenplays, he would instantly find himself unemployable in Hollywood. No one would rush to his defense. The First Amendment would not be at issue; moreover, the cultural pooh-bahs would likely welcome congressional inquiries to investigate the activities of such a profoundly un-American group, even while granting that it’s no crime to hold any particular ideology. Yet Communism in practice did far more damage, cost more lives, and posed a much more serious threat to American values—indeed, to America’s continued existence—than the KKK ever did.
Trumbo’s notion of being honest about its subject extends as far as showing the writer drinking too much and being rude to his children (though both habits, we are made to understand, are due to job pressures), but it is silent on the matter of Trumbo’s principles being flexible when it came to naming names. Which he did. He wrote a letter to the FBI around 1944 identifying anti-war citizens who wrote angrily to him when, after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, making the Soviets and the U.S. allies, he instantly switched from pacifism to ardent encouragement for U.S. entry into the war. Trumbo published his pacifist World War I novel Johnny Got His Gun in 1939 for the propaganda purposes of scaring Americans off going to war with Germany again. The book was so beloved by Hitler’s Soviet allies that it was serialized in the Daily Worker in 1940. Then, after the party line changed to support war with Germany, Trumbo suspended the book from being reprinted, effectively burying it for the duration. Nor did Trumbo oppose blacklisting per se; as a powerful Hollywood presence, he bragged (in the Daily Worker) that he and other Communists used their gatekeeping privileges to help quash a film version of Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon and other rebukes to Communism.
Trumbo is also blithe about inventing details or making misleading use of them. A feisty, noble, far-left screenwriter dying of lung cancer played by the comedian Louis C.K. is a fictional character. Trumbo did not encounter his House tormentor J. Parnell Thomas in federal prison (though Thomas, who was convicted of fraud, did do time at the same penitentiary where Trumbo’s fellow Hollywood Ten member Ring Lardner Jr. was sent). Trumbo did use Benzedrine and work at a ferocious pace while he was out of favor in Hollywood, but that was pretty much how he worked when he was in favor, too. (“He was evidently as unable to work without the constant, nagging demands of time and money on him as are many newspapermen who can write only to deadline,” writes his biographer Bruce Cook.)
The movie’s portrayal of Trumbo as having no choice but to work for the schlocky, low-budget producer Frank King (played by John Goodman) overstates the extent of Trumbo’s struggle in purgatory. He did sell his L.A. ranch and move to Mexico City—but there he hired a house full of servants and became an avid collector of pre-Columbian art. He did all this while being hounded by the IRS to pay back income taxes on work he did before his HUAC encounter. Trumbo can be said to have been in dire financial straits only if one considers his extravagant lifestyle choices to have been nonnegotiable. For instance, shortly before going to prison for 11 months in 1950 for contempt of Congress, he wrote three treatments in three weeks. One of them sold for $40,000—roughly $400,000 in today’s money—for a week’s work. Trumbo also earned $40,000 (and a posthumous Oscar in 1993) for Roman Holiday—of which, by the way, he was not the sole author, pace the film. His friend Ian McLellan Hunter, who agreed to serve as the credited writer in order to sell the project to Paramount, “greatly improved the script” with a rewrite, Trumbo told Cook.
Even B-movies like the 1956 picture The Boss brought in real money: $7,500. A four-day job rewriting Terror in a Texas Town brought in $1,000 in an era when $25,000 a year was a princely sum. Though Trumbo worked under pseudonyms and used agents to sell his scripts, the network of independent producers knew exactly what he was up to and worked with him directly. And Frank King and his brothers arranged for an investor in their company to provide Trumbo with a beautiful house on a large property in Highland Park. In other words, being blacklisted only modestly altered the career of Dalton Trumbo. He suffered from lost opportunities since he could have produced other work for the studios. But a martyr he was not.
Nor, it hardly need be said, is Dan Rather, the former anchorman of CBS News, but another fall film made that case. In the later stages of the movie that shamelessly calls itself Truth, Rather’s producer, Mary Mapes, is interviewing a Texan named Bill Burkett in 2004 as he relates a preposterous story. Mapes, played by Cate Blanchett, looks at Robert Redford’s Dan Rather and makes the ding-a-ling gesture, circling an index finger around her temple. The moment is played for laughs, but the obtuseness of writer-director James Vanderbilt is dumbfounding. Burkett was the sole source of the documents questioning George W. Bush’s 1970s military service—the very documents that Mapes, to her ruin and Rather’s, had put on the air that September. If Burkett isn’t trustworthy, Mapes’s story has no foundation. It means Mapes broadcast information whose provenance she didn’t bother to check in the first place, and when the source turned out to be a nutcase, she shrugged. In this one moment, Truth unknowingly deconstructs itself.
Indeed, the entire movie is so willfully self-deceiving that it amounts to a masterpiece of question-begging. The argument it makes via Mapes’s and Rather’s point of view is essentially this: We know George W. Bush shirked his duties in the Texas Air National Guard. We have the documents to prove it. Oh, the documents are fake? That doesn’t matter—you’re missing the point, which is that we know George W. Bush shirked his duties in the Texas Air National Guard. Why are you bugging us with all of this kibbitzing about how the documents were typed in a computer font that didn’t exist in 1972? Besides (as Rather keeps saying to this day) no one “ever established that the documents were forged.”
Actually, that was established beyond a reasonable doubt. The CBS-commissioned review of the fiasco led by former Attorney General Dick Thornburgh and Associated Press chief Louis Boccardi concluded that it could not say with “absolute certainty” that the documents—which were obviously produced on a 21st-century word processor, not a 1970s typewriter—were forgeries. But that was a mere kindness, like giving a blindfold to a man who is about to be shot. The Thornburgh-Baccardi report made it clear that the documents were overwhelmingly likely to be fakes. Anyway, “there’s a slight chance our story might be true” is not ordinarily regarded as the standard of a professional journalist. The burden of proof was on Rather and Mapes to authenticate the documents before they put them on the air. They not only failed to do this—two of the document experts they spoke to raised red flags—but made only meaningless gestures in the direction of authentication. For instance, in an important and spectacularly misleading scene in Truth, Vanderbilt shows Mapes calling General Bobby Hodges, who held high rank in the Texas Air National Guard when Bush was in it. Mapes runs the documents by him, and he says they accurately reflected the state of mind of Bush’s commander, Lieut. Colonel Jerry Killian. In reality, according to what Hodges told the Thornburgh-Boccardi commission, Mapes did not call him to get his opinion on whether the documents were authentic. She simply read him their contents. He replied, in effect, that if that’s what Killian said, then that must be what he thought. Hodges wasn’t asked to check facts. Mapes was simply tricking him into service as her prop and hoping no one would find out.
Deceiving an audience and hoping it never does any homework is what filmmakers shooting for Oscar glory do all the time. Unfortunately for today’s directors, the historical importance they implicitly claim when campaigning for awards occasionally attracts scrutiny from outside the Hollywood bubble, people who live lives outside of the movies. Invariably this catches the dream merchants off-guard. You mean I’m not allowed to restructure reality to fit my message? Last year a former aide to Lyndon B. Johnson, Joseph Califano, single-handedly destroyed the Oscar chances of Selma when he pointed out, in a Washington Post op-ed, that President Johnson was an ally, not an outfoxed opponent, of Martin Luther King Jr. in the struggle for civil rights. The movie’s director, Ava DuVernay, responded that she didn’t want to muddle her story of black victimization and courage by showing white people in a good light (“I didn’t want to make another white-savior movie”).
Filmmakers turn to history and find it too complicated, or its morals too messy, or even its facts uncongenial, so they alter whatever they wish to alter and hope people don’t notice. This matters, for several reasons: Films have long lifespans, they often create permanent misapprehension in the minds of the young and lazy, and they are at the point of the spear that is the left’s effort to discredit the idea of truth itself, facts proving so vexingly inconvenient to so many of its narratives. Today on campus epithets like “mansplaining” or “whitesplaining” are becoming accepted as reasonable, indeed withering, responses to assertions of fact; it’s a sign that the left will decline to get involved in the niceties of truth and skip straight to ad hominem attacks, with sex and race used as disqualifiers. Already one sees these terms working their way into young-progressive opinion factories such as the New Republic and Think Progress, the recruiting grounds for mainstream media such as the New York Times. Every time we let a fresh instance of progressive Hollywood agitprop seep into the American consciousness unchallenged, we forgo an opportunity to remind the public how many times the left has chosen the wrong side and then lied about what the real issues were.