There have been a number of movies in the last year that have been, despite their excellence, particularly hard to watch. Selma comes to mind, as it was difficult not to juxtapose yesterday’s historic struggle for voting rights for African Americans with today’s dispiriting attempts to roll those same rights back and disenfranchise those same people. Suffragette elicited a similar reaction, presenting a striking dramatization of the struggle of women to achieve social justice and independence, released during this year in which women’s rights are under cynical and flagrant attack once again.
The new film, Trumbo, presents a similar intellectual anxiety.
The true story of an Oscar-winning screenwriter blacklisted during the ugly McCarthy era in America, Trumbo stars Bryan Cranston in the title role of Dalton Trumbo, and he delivers a pitch-perfect performance full of wit and rage and fear and indignation.
Trumbo unfolds in an American era in which the country was deeply divided by fear and mistrust, much of it stemming from a mysterious foreign menace that seemed to threaten our way of life…and cynically fueled by opportunistic, craven politicians who saw in that threat the prospect of self-promotion. They questioned the loyalties of people based on the number of vowels or the arrangement of consonants in their last names. Americans whose politics differed from theirs were labeled as traitors. And people were persecuted, victimized, and stripped of their rights despite having perpetrated no wrongdoing nor having committed no crime.
All that resonates as uncomfortably familiar even to those of us who were born long after most of the events of Trumbo take place.
Dalton Trumbo was a communist—which is to say that he was member of the American political party called the Communist Party—and was active and vocal in supporting workers’ rights, unionism, and the First Amendment to the Constitution of the United States. He also was a self-admitted “rich guy”, whose Hollywood success had provided him and his family with plenty to lose when Trumbo decided to stand up the infamous House Un-American Activities Committee. Convicted of contempt of Congress, Trumbo served nearly a year in a federal prison in Kentucky, and when he was released, he was blacklisted from working as a writer.
But Trumbo fought back.
Hollywood has tackled the blacklists before, of course. Robert DeNiro headlined 1991’s Guilty by Suspicion, and George Clooney delivered the consummate prestige picture in 2005, directing Good Night, and Good Luck. Even before those, in 1976, Woody Allen starred in The Front, a simple but effective comedy-drama that had the distinction of being written by (Walter Bernstein), directed by (Martin Ritt), and starring (Zero Mostel, Herschel Bernardi, and Lloyd Gough) a number of artists who themselves had actually been blacklisted.
Trumbo takes a bit from each of those films, combining the personal drama of Guilty by Suspicion with the moral outrage of Good Night, and Good Luck and the dry wit of The Front. The result is a more three-dimensional film that works on multiple levels
The primary joy of Trumbo, though, is watching Bryan Cranston bring to life this strange, unlikely hero. Lurching from moments of thundering indignation to fragile vulnerability and back, Cranston creates a character who is full of contradictions in some ways, but one whose single-minded focus on justice—which just so happens to also mean redemption and security for him and his family—drives him from the opening frames to the closing credits.
The challenge of Trumbo, though, is to embrace and understand that it is neither fiction nor ancient history, and that underneath the drama and entertainment is a moral lesson that can help us understand and interpret the world around us today.
Trumbo would have wanted it that way.