2015 turns out to be a good year for films. I have been on a roll recently, seeing one excellent film after another, such as The Big Short and Spotlight. The latest one is Trumbo and like the others is based on a mostly true story and is about the Hollywood blacklist of the 1950s and 1960s, focusing on the Oscar-winning screenwriter Dalton Trumbo.
In 1947, Trumbo and nine others were hauled before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) and because they refused to cooperate, they spent time in jail for contempt of Congress, he for 11 months. As a result of the anti-Communist hysteria, pressure was brought on the film industry by Congress and the media and by prominent right-wing, faux-macho phonies in the film industry like John Wayne and Ronald Reagan to not hire people who were suspected of Communist sympathies, and they were unable to find work.
Trumbo and a few other writers were able to make a living by writing under false names and he won two Oscars for Roman Holiday in 1954 and The Brave One in 1957, the first under the name of his friend Ian McLellan Hunter who agreed to front for him and the second under the alias Robert Rich. It was director Otto Preminger and actor/producer Kirk Douglas who ended that charade when they defied threats of boycotts and announced publicly that they would give the screenwriting credits for Exodus (1960) and Spartacus (1960) to Trumbo. That was seen as the beginning of the end for the Hollywood blacklist.
The film artfully and seamlessly mixes actual newsreel footage of the time with recreations. Bryan Cranston gives an excellent performance as the prolific and hard-working Trumbo, and he is surrounded by a fine group of supporting actors. Helen Mirren plays legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, a strong advocate of the blacklist and John Goodman plays the part of a producer of low-budget schlock films who is quite happy to have major talents like Trumbo and his other blacklisted friends write scripts for him under false names for such a low price. One of the films was the Oscar-winner The Brave One. Diane Lane plays Trumbo’s wife Cleo who has to be the anchor of the family and hold them together even as the pressures on Trumbo cause him to become increasingly testy with them.
HUAC finally disbanded in 1975 but its pernicious influence has cast a very long shadow as can be seen in the attempts to discredit Bernie Sanders simply for identifying with the label of socialist and the red-baiting that so-called liberals like Hillary Clinton and her supporters have tried to use against him. The fact that he proudly wears that label is a further step in undermining what HUAC created.
While the ‘Hollywood 10’ as they were called were perhaps the most famous victims of the blacklist, we should not forget that many, many ordinary people from all walks of life had their lives destroyed by the vicious activities of the anti-Communist zealots who claimed that they were protecting the country from its enemies by weeding out those who were not true patriots. The language and tactics they used then of patriotism and the need to ‘save the country’ from its enemies have an eerie resemblance to what we still hear. The ‘enemies’ we supposedly need saving from may change over time but the language and tactics of the zealots remain the same as before.
This is a must-see film. Here’s the trailer.