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'Trumbo' Recalls Dark Political Past in US History

  • Penelope Poulou

With the United States awash in conversation, protest, and confrontation about issues of race, the new film Trumbo comes along at just the right time.

The film is ultimately a cautionary tale about our constitutional rights of freedom of speech and freedom of association, and how precious and fragile they can be.

Filmmaker Jay Roach tells the story of Dalton Trumbo, the highest-paid screenwriter in 1950s Hollywood, whose career came to a halt when he and other Hollywood artists were blacklisted by the House Un-American Activities Committee because they refused to testify about their possible association with the American Communist Party.

“Breaking Bad” star Bryan Cranston delivers a cantankerous and eloquent Trumbo, who faced his predicament with a devil-may-care attitude and a shrewdness that helped bring an end to the political witchhunt in Tinseltown.

WATCH: VOA interview with Cranston, Roach

Cranston's portrayal

When Trumbo testifies in front of the Committee in the late '40s, he is flippant and combative. To the question "Are you or have you ever been a member of the Communist Party?" he replies, “Many questions can be answered ‘yes’ or ‘no’ only by a moron or a slave.”

Dalton Trumbo was neither. Cranston said it was not just the flamboyant character of Dalton Trumbo that drew him to the role, it was his story; Trumbo was a man who told stories for a living, but was forced out of his job because he refused to abandon his right to silence.

“This man who was a prolific writer the highest paid screenwriter in Hollywood at the time and a member of the American communist party and summoned to Washington to make a statement under oath, under the penalty of imprisonment to forgo his first amendment rights and freedoms and civil liberties that were granted to the citizenry by the forefathers that fought long and hard to create that as a foundation of America," said Cranston.

Cranston inhabits Trumbo, enunciating every line as if it is going to be chisled into a rock. Talking about his socialist beliefs and fat wallet to his friend and fellow screenwriter Arlen Hird, played by Louis C.K., Trumbo exclaims, “It’s the perfect combination! The radical may fight with the purity of Jesus, but the rich guy wins with the cunning of Satan.”

But Trumbo’s acerbic wit didn't win him any friends. In 1950, he was sentenced for contempt of court and went to jail for 11 months. He was no longer allowed to work in Hollywood, but, when faced with the prospect of poverty, he worked illegally.

Small struggling studios hired him for a small fee under the table. He used aliases for the scripts he produced, and he produced many. His back had been injured during his time in jail, so he wrote around the clock sitting in a warm bathtub. The grueling schedule and his foes' prying eyes took a toll on him.

Gossip columnist and fervent anti-communist Hedda Hopper, played by Helen Mirren, was one of Trumbo’s fiercest enemies. She vowed to wipe him off the face of Hollywood but eventually she failed.

Creative talent

The film warns of the perils of political control over civil liberties, but it also offers a silver lining: creative talent is a currency in markets such as Hollywood, and cannot easily be quelled by political fanatics.

Trumbo won two Academy Awards writing under different names, and his work on the blockbusters Spartacus and Exodus won over superstar Kirk Douglas and filmmaker Otto Preminger.

They were powerful enough to veto the blacklist and put Trumbo's name under his work. The blacklist was officially over when President John F. Kennedy broke through picket lines outside movie theaters protesting Trumbo's involvement in Spartacus to go see the film.

But Trumbo's uplifting message of the triumph of the human spirit is paired with the toll that 13 years of political oppression and ostracism took on the screenwriter. And though the biopic has a happy ending of redemption, neither Trumbo nor his family knew if his persecution was ever going to end.

So, while Trumbo entertains, it also offers a stark reminder of what happens when political bullying goes unchecked and civil liberties are chipped away. It is what Dalton Trumbo called “this immoral assertion of power over the most private thoughts of men.”