For a brief shining moment in the ‘50s, anti-communist groups ran rough-shod over the Constitution and engaged in ineffective attempts to identify and rout out the massive Soviet infiltration of the government, education and entertainment industries.
This was a great moment for, well, the useful idiots that the USSR cultivated so carefully because they would forever point to it as vindication of all their beliefs. Other things, like the historical murderousness of their idols and the direct correlation of their ideals with the failures (indeed, destructions) of societies where they were employed, tend to garner less attention then the ten screenwriters who were blacklisted.
Also seldom mentioned is the fact that Hollywood, which routinely congratulates itself for its bravery and social advances, powered the blacklist, extending what might have been a relatively minor aberration. (The blacklist officially ended in the ’90s! what a profile in courage!)
Caught in this collusion of stupidity was one of the great screenwriters, Dalton Trumbo. A truculent, principled man who refused to cooperate with the fumbling bullies of the House Un-American Activities Commitee, and who paid dearly for not playing ball.
That said, a movie that is part biography and part actors reading Trumbo’s letters had a chance to be very, very bad indeed. I was a little concerned at first, since the first thing up is an absolutely horrible quote from Johnny Got His Gun. This may work better if you are more familiar with the story, but out of context, if you hear it it sort of sounds like, “Hey, yeah, that guy was a Commie!”
The rest of the movie is better, though, as Trumbo wasn’t a simple person. Too smart to demonize his enemies, but not so sublimely serene that he was above ripping them a new one. The movie excels when it focuses on the personal, how he dealt with the oppression, letters he wrote to his family, and a high point when Paul Giammati relates two letters he wrote to the phone company.
Other readers include Joan Allen, Michael Douglas and Liam Neesom, while Kirk Douglas is interviewed, and a lot of archive footage is used, as you might imagine, since most of the principals are long dead. All things stemmed from the HUAC’s abuse of power (and the shocking acquiescence of the Supreme Court), but with the exception of jail, the worst the family endured seem to come from what you might call freelance assholes: The movie studio blacklist, the publishers blacklist, the local school groups, realtors, etc.
The left tends to look at this and go “See!?!”, to the point where they’ve basically done the same thing to the right for the past several decades (created a de facto blacklist of those who disagree with them).
You could almost excuse the abuse of power if it had been effective, but the government messed with all these people, and we’re still awash in communism, in our schools, in our entertainment, and in our government. (Nationalization of oil companies, anyone?)
But instead, an ineffective government task force wasted tax money to destroy people they didn’t like, while doing nothing to actually solve the problem. And they picked some bad targets to have as enemies, probably making the situation worse.
What was especially cool about Trumbo is that you get the idea that he was standing up for something worth standing up for, and that he wouldn’t (and didn’t) turn around to be a tool for some other political viewpoint.
The Boy liked it as well, though he added, “Not enough of that John Adams guy.”