Dalton Trumbo, the subject of this film biography, is famous for two things: being regarded as the best and most successful Hollywood screenwriter of all time, and being imprisoned and blacklisted for his political beliefs.
Trumbo wrote the screenplays for well known, award-winning films such as Spartacus, Roman Holiday, The Way We Were, and over sixty other screenplays in a career lasting from the 1930s until his death in 1976. While the film Trumbo acknowledges his importance in Hollywood history, it focuses mainly on the period beginning in 1947, when Trumbo was called to testify before the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), a branch of the U.S. Congress seeking to identify Americans, especially those in the film industry, who were connected with the Communist Party or were Communist sympathizers. Originally created in the 1930s to monitor fascist and pro-Nazi organisations in the U.S., following the war and the end of the U.S.-Russian alliance the HUAC’s mandate changed to the surveillance of suspected Communists.
The man in charge of the HUAC, Senator Joseph McCarthy, had a very particular suspicion, some would call it paranoia, about the political allegiances of people in the film industry, and focused his investigations on Hollywood. Countless actors, directors, film producers, and screenwriters were subpoenaed to testify before the committee, and specifically to give the names of any colleagues believed to have Communist beliefs or connections. Some freely provided names; others acknowledged their own political beliefs but declined to name others. Dalton Trumbo, along with about ten other witnesses, refused to testify at all, denying the committee’s legal right to question his political beliefs, and was fined and imprisoned for one year. His work as a screenwriter continued, but under an assumed name or using a “front” or proxy writer, as many writers in his situation did during this period.
The conflicts among the various viewpoints existing in the American film industry at the time offers another source of drama. Opinions varied widely. At one end of the range were virulent anti-Communist supporters of the HUAC, such as gossip columnist Hedda Hopper, nicely played as outwardly charming but fiendish by Helen Mirren, who used the media to disgrace her opposition. At the other end were those who saw Communism as the simplest means to a more egalitarian society. Even in the latter group, there were differing views, priorities, and degrees of dedication, and quite varied opinions on how to best deal with Congressional hearings, and the infighting among them is a key part of the film’s action.
The movie follows Dalton Trumbo, along with his long-suffering wife and children, through the difficult years in which he is unable to work openly, until the gradual disintegration of the HUAC, which becomes more and more irrelevant as the years pass. When Trumbo’s pseudonymous screenplay for a 1956 movie, The Brave One, wins an Oscar, the real identity of the writer is an open secret, and Hollywood blacklisting becomes something of a joke.
Trumbo succeeds very well as a portrait of one very interesting man dealing with difficult circumstances; and in showing the range of opinions and attitudes among those involved.
The film handles the complicated storyline admirably. It makes the political situation clear without becoming didactic, and sustains interest by making Dalton Trumbo himself the heart of the story. An eccentric, amusing, outspoken person, Trumbo’s remarks, his creative approach to working under a ban, and his relationship to his family, friends, and colleagues carries the film. Bryan Cranston’s portrayal of the main character certainly adds to its appeal; Cranston makes the man interesting and likeable even during his less admirable moments.
The film does omit some of the more difficult shades of grey involved in the questions evoked by the HUAC’s activities. There is no attempt to explain the motives of those who freely co-operated with the committee, except as fear. There is no mention of Trumbo’s one-time isolationism in response to Nazi expansion, or his earlier work to urge the U.S. to stay out of the war – which he came to regret and to attempt to redress to some extent. The committee’s decision not to investigate the Ku Klux Klan, being an “old American institution,” or its part in Japanese internment camps, is omitted – not to disguise them, but simply because they are not actions of direct concern to Dalton Trumbo. Nevertheless, it is an unusually detailed and comprehensive look at the situation and its effect on individuals and on one industry in particular.
Two scripts written during the heyday of the HUAC are seen as representing the opposing views of those who believed the committee to be a necessary safeguard, and those who considered it a pointless violation of civil rights.
Representing the first attitude is the classic Hollywood drama On the Waterfront, starring Marlon Brando. Elia Kazan famously co-operated with the HUAC years earlier, and freely named colleagues with ties to the Communist Party, an action many of his colleagues in Hollywood considered despicable. On the Waterfront, whose theme is the moral obligation to denounce corruption, is considered Kazan’s metaphorical defence of his actions.
Speaking for the opposing view was The Crucible, a 1953 play by Arthur Miller. Loosely based on the notorious Salem witch trials which took place in 17th century Massachusetts, the play portrays the growing hysteria of a Puritan community over perceived signs that some of their neighbours are secretly practicing demonism. It was a clear allegory for the McCarthy hearings, which came to be popularly referred to as the “witch trials” as a result. The Crucible was adapted for film multiple times.
Incidentally, it is generally thought that the well known “I am Spartacus” scene from Trumbo’s script was intended as a response to the HUAC, as was Laurence Olivier’s line, “…the list of the disloyal has been compiled!”
For a different look at the hearings and the practice of blacklisting, try the 1976 comedy/drama The Front. Directed by Martin Ritt, a former victim of anti-Communist blacklisting, it stars Woody Allen as a man asked to serve as the “front” for writers unable to publish under their own name after being identified as Communist sympathizers. The film serves as an unofficial reunion of HUAC victims: along with director Martin Ritt, it includes several formerly blacklisted actors, and is written by previously blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein.