(I’ve been catching up on some movies I missed when they were in the theaters. God bless streaming services like Amazon Prime and Netflix.)
I remember when I was young and first learned about the blacklistings of the 1940s and 1950s. Most think it was a byproduct of McCarthyism but that’s incorrect. The House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC) was in full swing well before Joe McCarthy came on the scene. He exploited it, but he did not create it. It seemed to me to be un-American by its very nature, to deny people gainful employment. But this was also the time of segregation, embedded anti-Semitism, and sickening paternalism, so in that light the blacklisting of people because of some imperfectly conceived threat is more understandable, though still not justifiable. And these are the days some hold up as “the good old days.” Sigh.
The blacklist affected thousands of people. Even decorated war veterans like Leo Penn, Sean Penn’s father, could have their patriotism questioned and be blacklisted simply by being sympathetic to unions. Most of those who suffered were regular people with regular jobs, but there were some well-known people who had the world crash down around them. The most famous on the list was Dalton Trumbo.
Trumbo was a talented screenwriter and script doctor in Hollywood. He’d also published novels, the most famous of which was “Johnny Got His Gun,” an anti-war novel set during WWI. (The book was reissued in the late 1960s and became a 1971 movie starring Timothy Bottoms, Donald Sutherland, and Jason Robards; Trumbo did the screenplay and directed the film). During WWII, when the Soviet Union was allied with the US and Great Britain, Trumbo became a member of the Communist Party of the United States of America.
Jay Roach’s 2015 film Trumbo picks up his story just after the war. At the time Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) is working on a film with Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg) and living on a farm outside Los Angeles with his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and his three children. During a recent strike against the studio, Trumbo had supported the workers. That painted a proverbial target on his back, and Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren) was more than happy to shoot arrows at it.
Trumbo does an excellent job with telling the story both of how the blacklisting began as well as Trumbo’s fight to keep working in spite of it. In recreating the Hollywood of that time, several major actors and others involved in the film industry are portrayed. In some cases the actors don’t resemble the person, such as Stuhlbarg and David James Elliott as John Wayne, so they go more for the essence of the person rather than an impersonation. However, a couple of the actors are dead ringers for their characters and nail them, especially Australian actor Dean O’Gorman as Kirk Douglas and German actor Christian Berkel as Otto Preminger.
Lane is spectacular as Cleo Trumbo, balancing her love of her husband with her exasperation with him. Later in the film Elle Fanning portrays Trumbo’s oldest daughter Nikki during her teenaged years. One of the best scenes in the film is when Trumbo realizes his daughter is exactly like him. Also deserving of plaudits are Louis C.K., who plays Trumbo’s best friend and fellow blacklist victim, and John Goodman as schlock producer Frank King.
The movie, though, belongs to Cranston whose Oscar-nominated performance is spot on. There’s archival footage of an interview with Trumbo that’s included during the credits, and it sounds just like Cranston’s performance. Trumbo is a character with sharp edges and plenty of problems, and Cranston communicates them with crystal clarity.
Director Jay Roach cut his teeth on comedies with the Austin Powers series and the first two Meet the Parents movies. In 2008 he shifted gears to more political fare with the HBO movie Recount, followed by Game Change with Julianne Moore as Sarah Palin and the theater-released The Campaign with Will Ferrill and Zach Galifianakis. While Trumbo has plenty of humor in it, there is more gravitas in the story as well.
The production design by Mark Ricker and the art direction by Lisa Marinaccio and Jesse Rosenthal beautifully captures the historical settings. They’re assisted by Jim Denault’s cinematography that matches the rich Technicolor look of films of that time. Roach also seamlessly blends in actual footage of the HUAC hearings with testimony from the likes of Robert Taylor and Ronald Reagan.
This was a time when the ship of state went dangerously out of balance and threatened to capsize. It provides a powerful lesson on how we need to hold onto the aspects of this country that have made it great, such as the rule of law, fairness, and the constitutional rights granted us to freedom of speech and due process. When we abrogate those because of short-term fears, it lessens the country.