A Hollywood film about the witch hunt of some of Hollywood’s biggest names during the 1940s and 1950s could all too easily be a liberal fantasy.
However, upcoming film Trumbo is both a funny and powerful portrait of the “McCarthyite” witch hunts that smashed the US left for a generation.
Bryan Cranston (Breaking Bad’s Walter White) gives a convincing portrayal of blacklisted screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, famous for classics such as Roman Holiday and Spartacus.
He was hauled in front of “House Un-American Activities Committees” in 1947 along with hundreds of other left wingers.
It’s clear that there are sides–and the audience knows whose side they’re supposed to be on.
The Motion Picture Alliance, an “anti-Communist” outfit, is run by the racist actor John Wayne (David James Elliot) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren).
Trumbo brilliantly takes down Wayne’s patriotism. He points out that he was “shooting blanks” on a set during the Second World War.
Wayne’s performances when he’s denouncing Communism are “good”. But that’s only “because he’s not acting,” says the liberal actor Edward G Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg).
Hopper orders MGM studios to sack Trumbo. If they refuse she’ll use her position to stir up Antisemitism against them.
Those who stand in the middle of the road don’t get an easy ride in the film.
When asked “Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?”, Trumbo and nine others refused to dignify it with an answer. The Hollywood Ten were sent to jail for “contempt of Congress”.
You see the initial support they received and how it melted away.
Humphrey Bogart and other big names flew out to support the ten, but under pressure said the trip was “ill-advised, even foolish”.
In Trumbo the Edward G Robinson betrays his jailed friends and gives names to the House. As Cleo Trumbo (Diane Lane) dryly remarks, “Where have all the liberals gone?”
One of the best performances is by Louis CK as screen writer Arlen Hird.
His character acts as Trumbo’s Communist conscience and represents the scores of Communist writers who refused to give up their beliefs. After serving his jail term, the film focuses on Trumbo’s attempts to undermine the blacklist.
McCarthyism was about more than Hollywood—the right used it to assault the socialist, workers’ and Civil Rights movements.
As Trumbo quips, “If you think this is about the movies you’re an idiot.”
For a biographical picture, the film nods to this context well.
You see a snapshot of the bitter six-month strike by set decorators, with Trumbo spurring them on then arguing about it at a poolside party.
In the film’s closing credits, it acknowledges that hundreds of ordinary teachers, health workers and other union members were thrown out of work and blacklisted.
Nor is Trumbo presented as a hard-done-by liberal who “flirted” with Communism.
In a well-crafted and touching scene, Trumbo’s daughter Niki (Elle Fanning) asks, “Are you a Communist Dad?” “Yes,” he explains.
His relationship with his daughter, who goes into Civil Rights organising, keeps a connection with the political backdrop.
They often clash. But that partly reflects tensions between the film being about Trumbo’s personal battle against the blacklist, writing scripts under pseudonyms, and the political fight.
Trumbo is by far Hollywood’s best treatment of the terror unleashed against the US left during the Cold War.
Directed by Jay Roach
On general release