The potential criminalization of thought. The stoking of Americans’ fear of immigrants. The incessant blabbering that the media is infecting the world with its supposed invective.
No, that’s not the 2016 presidential campaign, it’s the late 1940s and early 1950s as depicted by Jay Roach in his new film “Trumbo.” But certain similarities inevitably come to light, of course. Fortunately for the team behind this project (but unfortunately for the world), the aftermath of the Paris attacks that occurred just a week after its theatrical release have only made this history lesson all the more pressing to revisit.
In the immediate aftermath of World War II, Communists were merely self-respecting left-wingers just slightly more extreme than the average Democrat. But once the Cold War began and the Soviet Union was no longer an ally, Communism was the primary menace to the security of the United States. A number of activists, such as Bryan Cranston’s screenwriting whiz Dalton Trumbo, were left to answer for a militaristic ideology they never intend to espouse.
The film shows, in heartbreaking detail, just how quickly the red panic overtook the country and instituted a reign of terror headed by Congress’ HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). Worse of all, Hollywood became complacent in imprisoning and exiling talents like Trumbo. These self-fashioned patriotic moralists, led by John Wayne (David James Elliott) and gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), drove the industry to create its notorious “blacklist” of known communists that could never be hired again.
The story of how Trumbo got his life taken away by those who valued security over liberty only to rebuild it again in the shadows is an admittedly fascinating one. Roach certainly knows how to get the blood boiling as we watch a decent man and brilliant writer suffer great injustice. That this happened in a time that many people alive today still remember only amplifies the jaw-dropping effect of observing it unfold.
But Roach and screenwriter John McNamara might have been wise to take a note from one of the studio heads mentioned in the film, Samuel Goldwyn, who famously said, “Pictures are for entertainment, messages should be delivered by Western Union.” Admittedly, “Trumbo” is more that just a mere diversion, yet the film feels a little overbearing at times given the way it telegraphs its message and ideology.
Anyone who watched an episode of “Breaking Bad” knows Bryan Cranston’s considerable acting prowess. Those who stick through the closing credits of “Trumbo” can attest to just how closely he mirrors the real figure whom he portrays. While it makes sense for an Oscar-winning screenwriter to articulate quite lucidly, such constant on-the-nose dialogue robs the audience from making discoveries on their own. Perhaps the filmmakers thought the moral of the story was too important to risk anyone missing it – an understandable concern given our current political malaise. B /