Superbly written and acted, Trumbo offers a partial look at Hollywood's red scare

April 12, 2016

Starring Bryan Cranston, Diane Lane & Helen Mirren
Directed by Jay Roach
In cinemas now

Communist Parties around the world, despite their Stalinist degenerations, won mass support in the period during and after World War II, even in the homeland of imperialism — the United States. Among the industries in which the Communist Party of USA had influence was Hollywood.

The movie industry was a dream machine, a factory churning out cultural product. Dalton Trumbo, a CPUSA member, achieved stellar status and great wealth in the 1940s writing hits for the studios.

He had all the signs of success — a social circle among the stars, studio moguls on first name terms and a country estate. He was to lose all this when the anti-communist blacklist came to Hollywood.

A section of the US ruling class calculated they could launch a nuclear war on the USSR before the Soviet Union could build atomic weapons. They moved to repress left-wing movements and prepare the country for conflict.

When the Soviet Union demonstrated that it too had the Bomb, the world found itself mired in a Cold War. Within the US, that accentuated the anti-communist witch-hunts.

Dalton Trumbo, as part of the Hollywood 10, found himself not just hounded out of work, he ended up in jail.

Although not identified in Jay Roach's film on Trumbo's life, that disaster was a product of the CPUSA advice to its members to try to dodge direct questions from the House Unamerican Activities Committee about their party membership.

That strategy was aimed at avoiding contempt charges if they then refused to name other Party members. Unfortunately, it allowed them to be labelled as mealy-mouthed and dishonest.

The CPUSA's left-wing rival, the Trotskyist Socialist Worker Party, advised its members to proclaim their politics while on the stand and simply tell the HUAC to go to hell if they wanted more. In the famous “Case of the Legless Veteren”, James Kutcher, who had lost both his legs fighting in WWII, did exactly that — and politically defeated HUAC.

To survive once out of prison, Trumbo organised an underground of blacklisted writers working at cheap rates, under pseudonyms. He established a cottage industry using his wife and children as delivery agents for work he wrote to order for producers who ruthlessly exploited his desperation.

Ironically, some of Trumbo's scripts won Oscars.

Trumbo has many strengths, not least of which is the writing, which steers clear of pathos — even the saddest moments are leavened with humour. The quality of the acting is superb; in particular Helen Mirren. As the arch-witch-hunter Hedda Hoppa, she combines Margaret Thatcher and Rita Skeeta from Harry Potter — with a slice of anti-Semitism thrown in.

The film's defects are that it concentrates on the heroic (male) individual rather than explaining that the blacklist was finally overthrown by the rise of left-wing mass movements. Also, given that the Hollywood 10 were Communists, how come they are never seen in a party branch meeting?

This is a family movie of a unique kind. All male revolutionaries with family responsibilities should attend — there are many home truths about the pressures transferred to the kids in political households.

Remember to stay for the credits at the end, during which an interview with the real Dalton Trumbo appears. From that you can see just how accurately Bryan Cranston has nailed the part.

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