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Reviewed by:
  • Trumbo dir. by Jay Roach
  • Michael Ray FitzGerald
Trumbo (2015)
Directed by Jay Roach
Written by John McNamara
Produced by Groundswell Productions
Distributed by Bleeker Street Media
124 minutes

Anticommunist hysteria has had a long and abject history in the US. It seems to have begun as early as 1877, when Allan Pinkerton, founder of the Pinkerton Detective Agency, wrote one of the first detective novels, Strikers, Communists, Tramps, and Detectives.

Alarmed by the Paris Commune of 1871, Pinkerton characterized its leaders as “a horde of human hyenas … Their prompt and utter extermination, in this and all other countries, is the only method of removing a constant menace and peril to government and society.” From the start, this new enemy was characterized as so demonic and dangerous that all precepts of law, such as the First, Fourth, and Fifth Amendments as well as right to due process and trial by jury should be abandoned. Communists should be executed on sight, like rabid dogs.

Pinkerton set the tone for much that would follow. Mere months after the Bolshevik Revolution, the US led a series of attacks on the newly formed USSR. Another infamous chapter transpired during WWI, when Pres. Woodrow Wilson asked for legislation creating the Sedition Act of 1918 (an [End Page 87] extension of the Espionage Act of 1917), which effectively rescinded the First and Fourth Amendments. And after the war there were the infamous Palmer raids.

FBI Director—and Pinkerton fan—J. Edgar Hoover had always been a major player in the anticommunist backlash. Hoover is behind the scenes in many of these purges. He even fed red-baiting Sen. Joseph McCarthy information.

However, as the film Trumbo makes clear, there was a brief window during WWII—when the USSR was allied with the West against Germany—when homegrown communists were tolerated. At FDR’s behest, Hollywood even made a few pro-USSR movies, such as Mission to Moscow (Warner Bros., 1943) and Song of Russia (MGM, 1944).

But that window slammed shut at war’s end. In 1946, Winston Churchill—at that point out of government—came to President Harry Truman’s hometown, Fulton, Missouri, to deliver his famous “iron-curtain” speech, which was very close to an official declaration of cold war. Things might have been different had FDR lived longer; he may have been more inclined to honor the agreements he and Churchill made with Stalin at Yalta and Potsdam.

Trumbo, directed by Jay Roach (Austin Powers, Meet the Parents), opens around 1947, when Richard Nixon established his Congressional career by “red-baiting.” The film centers around screenwriter Dalton Trumbo, played—perhaps I should say overplayed—by Bryan Cranston. Trumbo, a former magazine journalist and novelist whose 1939 antiwar novel Johnny Got His Gun won the National Book Award, quickly a top Hollywood screenwriter. Yet despite his wealth Trumbo harbored socialist leanings, which he never renounced. In 1943, Trumbo joined the Communist Party, which was not an outrageous thing to do at the time. Other prominent communists had been Dashiell Hammett, Lucille Ball, and Elia Kazan, all of whom renounced their “red” leanings during the ensuing hysteria.

The so-called Hollywood Ten’s problem was not that they had been communists—Trumbo had left the party by 1946—it was that they refused to kowtow to the House Un-American Activities Committee. The fundamental idea was to create an intimidating, “chilling” effect in Hollywood, and in this the committee succeeded profoundly. One of its ulterior motives was to discredit the New Deal and everything connected with it. What the committee wanted from its victims was public contrition underscored by a willingness to “name names,” which some, like Kazan and Edward G. Robinson, gladly did. Ball got off in 1953 by professing ignorance, which may have been the most effective acting role of her career.

Trumbo and his cohorts, including Ring Lardner Jr., Edward Dmytryk, Howard Larson, Albert Maltz, and others, however, refused to play the committee’s game and were sentenced to federal prison for contempt of Congress. They had in fact made their contempt plain: They accurately assessed the committee as the real threat to American ideals and said so...


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pp. 87-89
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