Rated R. Running time: 2 hours 4 min.
Our content ratings (1-10); Violence 2; Language 2; Sex /Nudity 1.
Our star rating (1-5): 4.5
Ah, you who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter!
Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.
Attributed to George Santayana
Behind the cameras Hollywood was in turmoil during the 30s and 40s, with conflicts erupting between the powerful producers and writers, actors, and workers. Many of the writers, most of whom supported Roosevelt and his New Deal, had turned to the Communist Party because of its espousal of the cause of “the Negro” and of workers and unions. One of the most prominent of those fighting the dictatorial studio heads was writer Dalton Trumbo, whom we learn at the beginning of director Hal Roach’s film, was the highest paid screenwriter in town. However, all this will change in 1947, with Trumbo soon having to fight for his life to earn a living for his wife Cleo (Diane Lane), and three children.
Trumbo and his fellow writers had rendered valuable service during WW 2 by producing morale building films for the public and training films for the armed forces. But that war was barely over when the cooperation between the Soviet Union and the Allies dissolved into the cold War and the nuclear arms race—much of this is shown by newsreel clips and newspaper headlines inserted throughout the film. Fearing internal subversion by Soviet agents, both the state and the federal governments fanned the flames of a new Red Scare, one even more vicious than the one that followed WW 1. The flames soon engulfed Hollywood, making Trumbo and his fellow writers unhirable to the studio producers, almost all of the latter caving in to government pressure.
1947 was the year in which the House Un-American Activities Committee held hearings in both Los Angeles and Washington to look into Communist activities. Chairman J. Parnell Thomas (James DuMont), like his predecessor Martin Dies, was one of those reactionaries who regarded anyone who supported liberal causes or unions as a dangerous Communist. On the other side, Trumbo regarded any investigation of one’s political views as a violation of the First Amendment of the Constitution, so he and a large group of fellow writers agreed that they would not answer the question “Are you, or were you ever, a member of the Communist Party?” He was a CP member, but he believed that it was not the business of the government to investigate this. His membership never involved spying or taking orders from a Moscow, nor espousing the overthrow of the government. Indeed, during the 30s and 40s the CP in Hollywood was often divided and rebellious against Party higher ups in the East who wanted them to toe the Soviet line.
Writer John McNamara, basing his screenplay on Bruce Cook’s 1977 biography of Trumbo, focuses on the period from Trumbo’s blacklisting through his eventual vindication when the latter gave a stirring speech at the 1961 meeting of the Screen Writers’ Guild. The HUAC summoned some 19 writers, who proved so uncooperative that the hearings stopped after ten, these being cited for contempt of Congress. All were jailed, thereafter the group being known as The Hollywood 10. Trumbo, of course, was among them. After his release, when no studio would hire him, he continued working under various pseudonymns, one of his scripts even winning an Academy Award. Brothers Frank (John Goodman) and Hymie King (Stephen Root), heads of a B-movie studio, provided plenty of work for Trumbo. So much that Trumbo farmed out scripts to a screen-full of other writers.
The film shows both the participation and the harmful impact of the writer’s family. While Cleo kept the family centered the children served as couriers, taking scripts back and forth among the writers and delivering the finished product to the studio. Trumbo, often typing on his upright typewriter while soaking in the bathtub, worked virtually every hour of the waking day. He bruskly rejected all attempts of the family to get his attention. The low point came when the family was singing Happy Birthday to oldest daughter Niki (Madison Wolfe plays her in earlier scenes, but I think it is Elle Fanning in this one) minus her father. When the disappointed daughter barges into the bathroom/office, the distracted Trumbo angrily orders her out of the room and never to bother him while he is working. This is when the long-suffering Cleo steps in at last.
The family’s descent economically and socially also is well depicted. They are forced to sell their lovely farm mansion with its view of the mountains and move into a modest home with neighbors a few yards on either side of them—neighbors who consider Trumbo a traitor needing to be, if not punished with a jail sentence, then at least ostracized. The kids suffer at school from classmates whose parents have poisoned their minds. Late in the film (the time is the early 60s) Niki shows that she has become very much like her father, joining an interracial group of students sitting in for equal service at a lunch counter.
As I have seen in postings on the Internet, there are still lots of people who regard Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten as traitors, one poster even declaring that they should have been executed along with the Rosenbergs. To these, who regard the HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy as praiseworthy, this film will be considered as further evidence that Hollywood is still infested with Communist subversives out to undermine “The American Way of Life.” And yet he wrote A Guy Named Joe and Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo, two wartime films very much in keeping with the patriotic spirit of the times. Under assumed names he penned Rocketship X-M; The Court-Martial of Billy Mitchell; The Deer Slayer; Exodus; and Roman Holiday and Spartacus, the last two winning Oscars. It is actor Kirk Douglas who determines to reveal that he is working with Trumbo. He is joined by director (of Exodus) Otto Preminger, also defying the instigators of the black list. During this period gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), as virulent an anti-Communist as any (it keeps readers following her column), sniffs around, attacking Trumbo and his fellow travelers whenever the opportunity arises.
Were he better known I think actor Bryan Cranson would be a shoo-in for an Academy-Award nomination for Best Actor. The speech at the conclusion that Dalton Trumbo gives at the SWG award banquet is beautifully delivered—and especially should be taken to heart, serving as a model of magnanimity for people of faith who have been attacked and harmed by enemies. Trumbo says that there are no heroes and no villains in what happened to him and his friends, and this film well shows that all concerned, including his supporter actor Edward G. Robinson and his enemy John Wayne, as well as Trumbo himself, who fortunately is saved from himself by his wife.
The film has been attacked by conservatives who still believe the HUAC and Senator Joseph McCarthy were true patriots protecting our country, so this should be kept in mind when discussing the film. Those who believe in the First Amendment and the right of a person to join any organization they want (yes, even the KKK) will want to be sure to see the film. I wish there were as many who strenuously affirm the Second Amendment.
This review with a set of discussion questions will be in the Jan. 2016 issue of VP.