When I saw "Trumbo" in a recent screening with a packed house at the Writer's Guild Theater, the WGA official hosting the event could hardly contain himself -- what a concept, a film starring a writer! During the Q&A following, screenwriter John McNamara, in his first feature film outing after more than three decades working exclusively in episodic television, was all but giddily jumping out of his seat. And the audience identification was, shall we say, intense.
As Ron Rapoport reported here earlier, the film is anchored by the compelling performance of Bryan Cranston and an accessible, if one-dimensional, storyline that all aspiring creatives can easily get behind: Enlightened politics! Personal courage! Standing up to cowardly bosses and venal politicians! And best of all, you win!
Well...we know that dramas aren't documentaries, and movies aren't reality. But it's safe to say that few moviegoers, even those working in the industry, know much about the blacklist, and fewer still know anything about Dalton Trumbo. Yet for most of the audience, this film may be all they ever learn about it.
That's a shame, because for all Cranston's charisma in the title role, the larger story is much more complex and interesting. And despite a number of earlier attempts, no one has fully succeeded in telling it.
The Trumbo film's best known antecedents, "The Front" (1976) and "Guilty by Suspicion"
(1991), took the commercially safer route as star vehicles for leading actors Woody Allen and Robert De Niro, playing fictional or composite characters (while populating the supporting cast with surviving blacklisted actors for appropriated street cred). These films relied on idealized victims and cartoon villains, largely airbrushing out messy and inconvenient truths -- some of which "Trumbo," at least, touched upon: a number of the accused had actually been Communist Party members, not merely innocent liberals falsely accused, and the reasons for naming names, or not, were often more nuanced than the black-and-white characterizations of partisans on the left and right.
But there are two other earlier dramatic films -- also featuring real-life blacklisted writers as the leading characters -- that are worth searching out for a more complete dramatic treatment.
In 1975, CBS aired the Emmy-winning made-for-TV movie "Fear on Trial," starring William Devane in the story of CBS broadcasting personality and writer John Henry Faulk, blacklisted in 1957 for resisting the shakedown racket of AWARE, Inc., a McCarthy-inspired for-profit monitoring organization that for a fee would investigate and "clear" performers of Communist affiliations. With the financial support of Edward R. Murrow and others, Faulk successfully sued for libel and won a $3.5 million judgment in 1962, inspiring the book upon which this TV movie was based. While the amount was reduced on appeal, the judgment stood, and many accounts credit Faulk's determined five-year legal battle, waged on his behalf by legendary First Amendment lawyer Louis Nizer (nicely underplayed in the film by George C. Scott), with finally ending the blacklist for good. In other words, it took more than Trumbo's credits on "Exodus" and "Spartacus," important as they were.
"Fear On Trial" was never released commercially, and aired in the U.S. only once, but you can join the Paley Center for Media in Beverly Hills and view it on-site from their voluminous archives.
More recently, in 2001 the Starz cable movie channel exclusively aired "One of the Hollywood Ten," starring Jeff Goldblum as writer-producer Herbert Biberman, who like Trumbo had been a member of CPUSA, refused to name names, went to prison for contempt of Congress, and was blacklisted. But unlike Trumbo, who kept busy in Hollywood writing under pseudonyms, Biberman took the road less traveled and turned his back on Hollywood, Instead, he became an early pioneer of independent cinema, mounting a professional feature film production entirely outside the Hollywood studio system. "Salt of the Earth," directed by Biberman, was written by Michael Wilson, produced by Paul Jarrico, and featured actor Will Geer, all blacklisted at the time. While Red-baiters had often searched in vain for evidence of radical subversion in Hollywood productions, "Salt of the Earth" effectively doubled down on the agit-prop charge by lightly fictionalizing a true story championing a successful strike by impoverished Latino zinc miners in New Mexico.
Often cited as the only American film effectively banned -- industry craft unions refused to work on it, radio and newspapers refused to advertise it, theaters refused to book it -- "Salt of the Earth" only played briefly on 13 screens before it quickly ended its money-losing initial run and was soon forgotten. But it went on to earn its place in film history when it was exhumed from obscurity in the mid-'60s, became a campus favorite, and in 1992 was selected by the Library of Congress for the National Film Registry as "culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant." But while "Salt of the Earth," once suppressed, is now widely available, "One of the Hollywood Ten" -- which effectively dramatized its production -- was, like "Fear On Trial," also never commercially released and is nearly impossible to see today.
In 1997, the four major Hollywood creative unions -- the Screen Actors Guild, the Directors Guild, the Writers Guild, and the American Federation of Radio and Television Artists -- attempted to expiate their past sins by mounting "Hollywood Remembers the Blacklist," a commemorative event marking the 50th anniversary of the House Un-American Activities committee hearings to formally apologize for the blacklist whose very existence they and the studios had once denied. But by then, Trumbo, Biberman, Wilson and countless other victims were long dead. Paul Jarrico was among the survivors on hand to receive the apology -- but in a bitter irony, died in a car accident the following day when he apparently fell asleep at the wheel while driving himself home from the event.
Today, amid all the self-congratulatory hype around "Trumbo," have we finally learned the lessons of history? I don't think so. The "blacklist" may be a thing of the past, but the censorious impulse -- the eagerness to punish political dissent and unpopular speech with write-in campaigns, boycotts, speaking disinvitations, and public shaming through social media -- is alive and well, coming as much or more from the left as it does from the right.
Those are unsettling implications that a feel-good movie like "Trumbo" doesn't even attempt to address.