Seems like these days the movies are presenting us (unwittingly, I’m sure) with a number of good Stoic role models, sometimes entirely fictional (astronaut Mark Watney in The Martian), at other times based on real life people (lawyer James Donovan in Bridge of Spies). Of course, a good explanation of this phenomenon is simply that I have started looking at things in general from a Stoic perspective during the last year or so, which means I’m just now paying attention to what was already there.
Regardless, another good entry in the genre is Trumbo, based on the real story of Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston), who was a brilliant Hollywood scriptwriter during the 1940’s and through the ’60s, but also a member of the Communist Party and a labor organizer. That meant that he was eventually blacklisted by the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee and compelled to testify in Congress. When he refused to play the dirty game of answering questions that Congress had no constitutional right to ask in the first place, Trumbo was cited with contempt and spent a year in jail. After that, he found that he could not get any legitimate work as a writer, and also discovered that a number of his “friends” — including eventually famous actor Edward G. Robinson — turned against or away from him.
Many lost their jobs, and some their lives, and countless families and lives were dramatically disrupted during the time of the blacklist, which lasted from 1947 to 1960. This — in parallel with the equally infamous activities of Senator Joseph McCarthy — constitutes a dark period of American democracy, one that was induced by fear of infiltration of an alien ideology that could potentially undermine “the American way of life.” If you smell a parallel with ongoing debates concerning the role of Muslims in our society, as well as of the price that we pay in terms of civil liberties whenever there is an irrational surge in nationalism and paranoia, I think you have a good sense of smell.
Trumbo reacted to the issue with wisdom, courage, and a sense of justice. And he also displayed a remarkable degree of temperance (though he is occasionally shown in the movie to have bursts of anger — nobody’s a Sage!), thus covering all four of the cardinal Stoic virtues. His first move was to challenge the House Committee in court, but luck was not on his side, as one of the liberal judges on the Supreme Court died before an appeal could be filed, meaning that Trumbo and his colleagues (the famous “Hollywood Ten“) had no chance of overturning the lower court’s decision.
He then went underground, writing scripts for major productions under pseudonyms, and when even that proved impossible he created a network of ghost writers for a small budget production company that was putting out B-movies. All in order to keep his family afloat and to somehow defy the injustice that had befallen him and his fellow workers.
The strategy worked so well that Trumbo won academy awards for Roman Holiday (1953, with initial credits to Ian McLellan Hunter, a colleague who lent himself as a front) and The Brave One (1956, under the name Robert Rich). He also wrote the screenplay for Spartacus, starring Kirk Douglas (who is portrayed as a very positive character in the movie, unlike his dark counterpart, John Wayne).
Trumbo played a major role in the undoing of the blacklist, helped by director Otto Preminger, who listed him on the credits of the 1960 movie Exodus, with Paul Newman, and by Douglas who made public that Trumbo had written the script for Spartacus, which came out the same year.
Here we have, then, an example of the Stoic ideal of someone who both fights for social justice while at the same time being deeply aware of his duties to his family and friends. Someone who persists in the face of adversity, realizing that some things are under his control and some aren’t. In one scene, Trumbo is talking to his friend and fellow writer Arlen Hird (played by Louis C.K.). Hird is an idealist, and doesn’t want to compromise or find other ways around the blacklist when it becomes clear they will lose in court. Trumbo, however, displays practical wisdom and the ability to play the long game: he seeks alternatives that will keep him working, his family surviving, and the fight going until things — fate permitting — will change for the best. He doesn’t give up, but he is keenly aware of what is within his powers to do and acts accordingly.
As I mentioned above, at one point Trumbo does crack a bit, becoming isolated from his family and prone to anger, the result of the immense stress of working eighteen hours a day for seven days a week, managing his underground network of ghost writers. His wife, who is obviously also his best friend, confronts him, an episode that triggers some soul searching on his part and the realization that he ought to do better by his family, that anger isn’t going to do anything other than destroy what he cares the most about.
The movie ends with a speech that Trumbo gave in 1970, when he was presented an award that celebrated his career in Hollywood. He could have been written by Epictetus, and it includes the following passage:
“There was bad faith and good, honesty and dishonesty, courage and cowardice, selflessness and opportunism, wisdom and stupidity, good and bad on both sides; and almost every individual involved, no matter where he stood, combined some or all of these antithetical qualities in his own person, in his own acts.” Nobody is perfect, nobody is truly evil, we all just stumble in the dark, some of us seeing slightly better than others.