Just a few weeks until the new Trumbo movie comes out in theaters, and I’m on the edge of my seat, wondering if the film will follow in a long line of Hollywood blacklist movies that obscure the political context of the era. Meanwhile, two events have me thinking about the role of historical narrative in popular culture.
First, I’m fascinated by the discussion unfolding around the new Steve Jobs biopic. Scratch that; film critics are insisting that its actually not a biopic. “Formally audacious” according to A.O. Scott, the movie eschews the “cradle to grave” narrative that make so many biopics so unbearably awful. Maybe just as important as its form, Scott and others laud the film’s critical perspective; rather than fawn over its hero or present him as an entrepreneurial genius, Aaron Sorkin’s script apparently challenges the fables of individualistic success. Just like old Hollywood did in films like Edgar Ulmer’s Ruthless (written by two fellow blacklistees of Dalton Trumbo, incidentally) the Jobs film evidently suggests that audacious greed is what gets people to the top in America, rather than generosity or a cooperative spirit.
What’s striking now, as it was when Selma came out, are the voices that lament Hollywood’s betrayal of the historical record. Joe Nocera penned a critique of the film because it dared to portray Jobs with sharp angles. Defending himself in the face of such comments, Sorkin simply threw up his hands, declaring that he was interested in painting a portrait rather than taking a picture. Now I haven’t seen the movie, and I’ll be the first to say Sorkin’s writing can be as tiresome as it can be brilliant, witty, and sharp. But I like Sorkin when he’s in Budd Schulberg mode — I remember walking out of the Social Network thinking that he had created the 21st century Sammy Glick. And I had little interest in trying to suss out whether that creation was one out of whole cloth or whether it bore any relation to the real Mark Zuckerberg.
Unlike Steve Jobs, no one seems to have a problem with the historical fidelity of Hamilton, arguably the most popular Broadway play right now. And from what I understand of the play, which matches the story of the founding father with a cast composed primarily of people of color and a hip hop soundtrack, its fantastic. I’m eager to see it.
And yet, if you watch the news story above, the show’s themes looks like they were pulled from a Horatio Alger novel. Hamilton is described as “ferociously ambititious,” a man of little means who rises to fame and fortune with pure luck and pluck. It’s a “classic immigrant story,” the piece declares. Even the multicultural cast appears to function primarily as a means to invoke American exceptionalism.
I would argue that our sensibilities are not as affected by verisimilitude or fidelity to the historical record as we’d like to think. Hamilton can be factually incorrect and still speak to the normative mythologies of our culture, and it’s fine. Steve Jobs or Selma on the other hand might be factually incorrect in the pursuit of greater truths, ones that challenge dominant narratives of popular culture and public memory, and it’s in these cases when pushback occurs. Hell, even when our historical characters are fictional to begin with, as is the case with Harper Lee’s character Atticus Finch, some Americans become upset when such characters are portrayed in ways that challenge the myths that hold liberal democracy together.
So will I be looking for historical fidelity when I go to see Trumbo (and presumably, write about it) next month? Yeah. I am a historian after all! But more importantly, I’m interested in the truths that the film seeks, and those that it avoids or obscures, and those that were presumably never considered because they fall outside of the dominant frameworks around which such stories are told, around which the subjectivities of filmmakers and writers are formed.
In the meantime, I think we all should start thinking about the next badass historical stage musical. I’m thinking since Emma Goldman said there could be no revolution without dancing, maybe her story would a natural fit? Cirque du Soleil style??