Last night I had the pleasure of attending the opening day of the new film, Trumbo, at the Plaza Cinema in Manhattan. I was invited by my friend, Alan Klingenstein, one of the film’s producers, and it was indeed a pleasure, if a disturbing one. Trumbo, directed by Peter Asken, is a documentary about the great Hollywood screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo, who was caught up in the early fifties in the hysteria of the anti-Communist era in America. Called before the demagogue Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, Dalton Trumbo refused to name names and was consequently jailed and blacklisted by the Hollywood community. All this deprived him both of his place and his livelihood, but the greater psychological loss, I think, was his sense of betrayal by his friends and his country. He and his young family struggled for years afterward not only to survive, but with vicious ostracism. Trumbo did write a film here and there under assumed names, and he even won an Oscar for his work on “The Brave One,” but of course he couldn’t show up to claim the prize and it went unclaimed until the blacklist was finally lifted in 1960. I found the clips from the famous “I Am Spartacus!” scene in Spartacus, and also from The Brave One, The Sandpiper, Johnny Got His Gun and the Fixer among the most interesting parts of the film. How is art related to life? Here’s how. Into these films Trumbo inserted his beliefs about free speech, and themes of both betrayal and friendship. That these themes figured prominently in both his letters and his fiction shows how deeply he felt about them.
Trumbo was adapted from the play of the same name by son Christopher, and features emotional readings of letters written by the cantankerous, brilliant, witty Trumbo, many from jail, by a collection of extraordinary actor/celebrities including Liam Neeson, Paul Giametti, Nathan Lane, Dustin Hoffman, Brian Dennehy, Michael Douglas, Joan Allen, Donald Sutherland, and David Straithairn. All this is intermixed with frightening but familiar archival footage of the “Hollywood Ten” hearings stage-managed by Senator McCarthy, touching Trumbo home movie footage, personal photographs, and interviews with Trumbo’s daughter Mitzi, along with Christopher and many others who knew the man. It’s an extraordinary piece of work that somehow manages to be both informational and dramatic, and provides not only a compelling window into the struggles of this man and his family and others caught up in the Committee’s net, but also demonstrates the danger that demagogues who pray on unbridled fear pose for this country. Over and over in history, we have seen eras in which demagogues like McCarthy take control and whip this country into a frenzy, from the Red Scare of the early last century, to the Vietnam War, to the tenure of our current disastrous Administration. Why does this happen in our democracy? Is it something gullible in the American character? The film ought to be required viewing in every high school in America.
Congratulations to Alan. Also check Alan’s new film venture at www.filmcatcher.com.