Like George Clooney’s brilliant film Good Night and Good Luck, which came out 11 years ago, last year’s Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach and starring Breaking Bad’s chameleon-esque Bryan Cranston, should be required viewing for every American in 2016.
Trumbo examines the Hollywood Blacklist from the personal point of view of one of its victims–and one of its heroes–screenwriter and novelist Dalton Trumbo. Cranston once again steps into the skin of a historical figure, becoming someone else. It’s a brilliant performance, but one that does not overshadow the story of Trumbo and the Hollywood 10, left-leaning screenwriters–many of whom had been WWII heroes–blacklisted for their beliefs. Mind you, not actions, not sedition, not treason, but simply for their political beliefs, which were out of step with Main Street America.
The House UnAmerican Activities Committee (HUAC) and the McCarthy witch hunts, fueled by the “red scare” and gung-ho uber-“patriots” like John Wayne (who served not a day in the service during WWII) and, xenophobic influencers like Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), terrorized Hollywood. Some, including Trumbo, were jailed for refusing to “name names,” others simply had their lives and livelihoods destroyed. Still others, intimidated by fear and the threat of lost income did name names.
Just out of prison, the ambitious and defiant Trumbo creates a cottage industry for blacklisted writers in an alliance with a B-List producer (played to perfection by John Goodman), who is in desperate need of rewrites for the hundreds of scripts on his docket. The only catch is that none of the blacklisted writers’ names can be credited. During this time, Trumbo, under various fronts wins Academy Awards for Roman Holiday and The Brave One. As the blacklist wears on for years, Trumbo’s work fronted, an open secret in some Hollywood circles, leads studio luminaries like Kirk Douglas (Spartacus) and Otto Preminger (Exodus) to the writer’s door.
To many of us, the events in both Trumbo and Good Night and Good Luck are history from a time before we were born, or were just babes in arms. But it’s recent-enough history, and the same sorts of fears (different enemy–but not that different) and stoking of anxiety loom over 2016 America, promoted not only by fake news, but its proponents, some of whom will sit in the Oval office come January 2017.
Everyone should watch, listen, and learn–and be warned. Trumbo is a sobering cautionary tale at the dawn of the Trump presidency, the rise and promotion of fake news, and the chilling entry into a post-fact age, where mainstream journalists are called “scum” by the president-elect, and fake news can inspire a terrorist to enter a family pizza joint in Washington D.C. and open fire.
There are other films that depict this era, equally worthy of your time. The list includes, notably, The Front, a biting comedy starring Woody Allen, whose cast boasts many writers and actors who had been victims of the Blacklist and Guilty by Suspicion, starring Robert de Niro. There are lessons to be learned from this terrible time in our history, not so long ago.
HUAC was established in 1938 to root out “subversives.” With wide-ranging subpoena powers and its intimidating atmosphere, I can only imagine what terrible damage its reincarnation could wreak. As Trump supporters continue to scream “Lock her up,” and fake news infiltrates mainstream thought, that time could be closer than we think, and we must be ever-vigilant.