Movie Review: Trumbo

Back when I was a young pup I wanted to be a film reviewer. My heroes were Andrew Sarris from the Village Voice and Pauline Kael from the New Yorker. I read the books they referenced in their reviews – which were much more than reviews actually. They were essays on popular culture, literature, movies, personalities, history. They were my graduate program out of college and I followed briefly in their footsteps, if not in breadth and depth than at least in a weekly film review. For a year-and-a-half or so I wrote a weekly column in the Bakersfield Californian and was paid $15 a pop for my reviews. This was 1977-1978, the years of such gems as the first Star Wars movie (which I gave -haha- four stars and a planet), a Bond flick I saw with my father, The Spy Who Loved Me, and Saturday Night Fever. There were also some stinkers in those years and eventually going to comedies that didn’t make me laugh led to the end of my reviewing career.

When I went for my master’s degree however I went back to film history and studied the 1950s House Un-American Activities Committee and their blacklisting of writers, actors, and others in the movie business for so-called Communist leanings. So when I saw that a new movie was being made about Dalton Trumbo, the screenwriter of the ’40s and ’50s and beyond, I was thrilled. I got to see it yesterday in Los Angeles (it will be out at Thanksgiving in general release.)

Trumbo stars Bryan Cranston who embodies the spirit of Dalton Trumbo, the “swimming pool radical” who was at one time the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood. He was one of the Hollywood Ten, the first ten writers called before Congress to testify to their Red backgrounds and to name names. This “squealing” on friends became the whole point of the HUAC committee because they couldn’t find any evidence or conspiracies. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy, with the help of Roy Cohn and good old Richard Nixon (whose photo shows up a few times in old stills in the movie) and the FBI, built a frenzy of fear fed by the Cold War. While my classmates and I were hiding under desks in air raid drills, McCarthy assigned himself the duty of routing out Commie influences in American movies. Remember those? Me neither, and eventually McCarthy was censured by his colleagues in Congress and died of liver disease at 48. (This isn’t covered much in the movie but suffice it to say Joe McCarthy was a worthless human being whose spirit lives on in politicians today who use fear as a political weapon.)

Cranston is brilliant as the screenwriter, aging from 30s to 70s over the years, Trumbo angry, loving, cranky, driven, defiant, and clever, building an entire framework of “fronts,” writers real and imagined who put their names on his screenplays so he could work. If you’re not familiar with the history it will be an eye-opener. You may not like John Wayne any more (darn). You really won’t like Hedda Hopper, played by Helen Mirren to a venomous T, who stirred the pot, exerting her power over major studios, making them dance to her tune. You will learn to love Kirk Douglas if you didn’t before. (Read his Deadline Hollywood statement about Trumbo here.)  If you’re a film buff you will play the name-that-actor/director game.

This is a sort of anti-super heroes movie, for thinking adults. It is funny. It has many hilarious lines and — Louis CK! “I need to call my doctor before I can answer, Congressman. Why? To see if I can surgically remove my conscience.” But there are no car chases, no super powers, just ordinary men and women in a difficult time in our history, one we should never forget. When mass hysteria grips this nation, any nation, it can be very ugly. Only when people stand up to it, demand sanity and reason, can we go forward. Nobody is perfect in this movie. There are no saints, no evil-doers. There are some stupid people but most are just flawed as we all are.

May we never have to find out how many of our friends we would back to the end, and how many we would throw to the wolves.

Update: One of my savvy family members (son Nick) reminded me that we have a connection to the blacklist. My father’s first cousin, Janet Stevenson, and her husband, Philip Stevenson, were both blacklisted in the late 50s/early 60s for their membership in the Communist party. Both were playwrights and screenwriters, active in social justice issues and the labor movement. Janet, who lived to 95 and feisty to the end, lost her teaching job at USC in the 60s over the blacklist, after being banned as well from the movie business. Afterward she wrote plays, biographies, and novels, including a biography of the California Attorney General Robert W. Kenny, who defended the Hollywood Ten before the House Un-American Activities Committee. Philip wrote books under a pseudonym after his blacklisting and died, ironically, during a visit to the Soviet Union in 1965.

Janet Stevenson:

Philip Stevenson:

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