It is a curious quirk of the human condition that passionate devotion to an ideal can so often become fundamentalist zealotry that ultimately ends up trampling across the very belief system it is meant to uphold and protect.
It has happened time and again throughout history but perhaps one of its more extreme modern examples was in the mid-twentieth century when the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), led for much of its investigative life by Senator Joseph McCarthy, instigated what can only be described as a paranoid witch hunt to uncover the communists supposedly lurking everywhere within American society, and especially in Hollywood.
It was the height of the Cold War when paranoid was rampant, evidence backing accusations was scant and it didn’t take much beyond some absurdly-vague patriotic catchphrases to convince a number of influential people and the public that the Soviet Union was behind every film being released into American theatres.
It caught thousands of people in its indiscriminate net, among them well-known larger-than-life screenwriter Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston), who along with nine other close colleagues such as Ian McClellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), was accused of conspiring to subvert American rights and freedoms with an agenda that his accusers in Congress never fully articulated.
But then they didn’t have to; with paranoia about communist subversion of the American way of life at fever pitch and no real right of appeal, Trumbo and his colleagues, all of whom had had some form of membership of the completely legal Communist Party through the 1930s and ’40s when membership was seen as a patriotic badge of honour, given the alliance with the Soviet Union to fight the threat of Nazi Germany.
Unable, and frankly unwilling to disavow that they had been members of the Communist Party, and brave enough to stand up to the fearmongers of HUAC in a way that many others didn’t dare, Trumbo chief among them, they spent time in jail, only to emerge back into a Hollywood cowed into submission and unwilling to give them work.
Essentially the members of HUAC, and their Hollywood offshoot the Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals, headed by John Wayne (David Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren,) convinced Hollywood and once close allies of Trumbo and his colleagues, many of whom were composited into the character of Arlen Hird (Louis C. K.) to cast aside their friends under threat of all forms of retribution.
By any measure their tactics were a complete abrogation of the democratic ideals they claimed to stand for, a disconnect so profoundly unjust that Trumbo, though disavowed by close friends such as the actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), fought back through the only means available to him – the black market in Hollywood which was alive and well despite what HUAC and their Tinseltown cronies maintained.
Throughout the 1950s and into the ’60s, Trumbo primarily, wrote script after script, many schlocky numbers such as The Alien and the Farm Girl and Nympho Nuns for King Brothers Productions, headed by feisty everyman Frank King (John Goodman) simply to stay afloat but also to make a point in the only way he had left at his disposal.
He also secretly wrote Oscar-winning movies such as Roman Holiday and The Brave Ones, his authorship an open secret in largely liberal Hollywood that loathed the way Wayne, Hopper et al were subverting the very ideals they claimed to champion by acting like little more than common thugs.
Brave though Trumbo’s stand was, it took a great toll on the man dubbed the “Swimming Pool Soviet” in honour of his mix of communist ideals and bourgeois lifestyle, his friends and family including devoted wife Cleo Fincher Trumbo (Diane Lane) and his three childen.
Director Jay Roach’s John McNamara-penned film Trumbo captures both the stark brutal reality of Trumbo’s almost-unwinnable situation and his unflinching ideals in ways humourously elegant and alarmingly serious, delivering with minimum melodrama and graphic honesty the way in which many innocent men and women suffered during the McCarthy era.
Trumbo fought back largely because he had the means to do, financially, morally and tenaciously, describing his mix of ideals and money as using the “purity of Jesus” and “the cunning of Satan” to fight for his life back.
The sad part is, of course, that such was the ruination and loss visited upon those HUAC and the Alliance targeted that many never fully recovered, Trumbo almost among them saved by his family and unexpected allies such as Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) who openly proclaimed Trumbo’s authorship of their movie’s scripts (Spartacus and Exodus respectively) and refused to lie down in the face of groundless threats and intimidation.
The reason why Trumbo works as well as it is, both as the story of one remarkable man but also as a message piece about how noble ideals can so quickly be subverted into tyrannical fundamentalism claiming victims as they go, is that it is content to simply let the story tell itself.
The cruel absurdity of the McCarthyist era becomes patently obvious through Cranston’s mesmerisingly measured performance, that is at turns grimly tenacious and hilariously insubordinate, and the nuanced screenplay which never lags even if it possibly a tad too long, and no histrionic redressing is needed to get the point across.
Here simply were people egregiously ill-treated who fought back and held on for almost 20 years to fight for the very ideals that their opponents claimed to champion but patently and destructively did not.
If there is a moral to the story, and blessedly neither McNamara nor Roach seek to shove one down our throat, it’s that great evil, even when dressed in red, white and blue patriotism, can only flourish when good men do nothing.
Thankfully for the long term good of American society, people like Dalton Trumbo refused to do nothing and stay silent, and their inspiring true story, which forms the centrepiece of Trumbo‘s remarkably engaging storytelling, is as instructive today as it was when it unfolded over 50 years ago.