Wednesday, 21 December 2016

Twelve Wars to Christmas: Trumbo (Cold War)

The Cold War was an unusual conflict, both in its day and now. One could debate on whether an actual war happened, as no shots were ever fired (although the Cold War did play a major role in starting the Korean and Vietnam Wars). The "war" was mainly a conflict between ideologies and weapons. Both the United States and the Soviet Union were competing to construct more advanced nuclear weapons. It was also one about different ideologies and paranoia. This was especially true when the Cold War began in 1945. During this time, the American Government was hijacked by a party of right-wing fanatics, not unlike what is currently happening today.

Many of these consertavies Joseph McCarthy being among the most infamous, promoted the idea that communism was a threat to "American values," resulting in a wave of anti-communist propaganda describing non-existent conspiracies and creating a desire to root out communists in America. Men like McCarthy and J. Parnell Thomas began running a series of communist witch-trials in which people were accused of "contempt of congress" without sufficient evidence. Anyone who tried to protest against these so-called trials was automatically labelled a traitor, and the men involved were known to twist the words of defendants to make them sound guilty. Worse still, the only way to get out of being accused was to give other names, people who would in turn be accused of communism.

It is true that there were communists in America at the time, but McCarthy's stories of spies infiltrating America and destroying it from the inside were a fantasy at best. Most communists working at the time would have only supported the ideas of communism (specifically the part about rights for workers) rather than what had actually occurred as a result of Joseph Stalin's actions in Russia.But one did not even have to have the slightest interest in communism to be affected.

During this time, film studios were making deals with a "union" known as the International Alliance of Theatrical Stage Employees (IATSE) which made backroom deals to keep workers from striking. After several tricks were used to weed representatives from the Conference of Studio Unions (a union which actually supported workers' rights), their leader Herb Sorrell was accused of alleged communist ties which were then used to force out its remaining members. Additionally, being against antisemitism was also equated with being communist, resulting in problems for writers who had made films about the subject.

The Hollywood Ten, screenwriters blacklisted by Hollywood

The result was unemployment, imprisonment, deportation, and in some cases suicide for thousands of Americans. Soldiers, teachers, doctors, actors, writers, directors were blacklisted as communists. This is where one screenwriter by the name of Dalton Trumbo enters the picture. Today, Trumbo is arguably best known as the writer of Roman Holiday and Spartacus, but these were only brief moments in a lengthy and dangerous career. Trumbo was a member of the American Communist Party, as well as an advocate for the rights of workers before he was blacklisted. But he would not only fight the blacklist, he went on to defy and challenge it.

It is this complex story that makes up the biopic Trumbo, a story about the blacklist with a particular emphasis on its role in Hollywood but relating it to a much larger issue. Here we see the question of what it means to be patriotic and what it means to be a traitor? How far can one go to defend their rights? And where does security end and oppression begin? These are all questions the viewer is left to face as they are forced to navigate the confusing crossfire of Cold War politics. Throughout, we are left to question who the real threats are.

From the beginning of the movie, we are introduced to Trumbo's work as a screenwriter, complete with a strange motif that recurs throughout- his unusual choice to work in a bathtub. Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston of Breaking Bad fame) is more or less a normal person working as a writer in Hollywood and trying to do his best for his family. Unfortunately, his communist ties quickly draw unwanted attention in the aftermath of World War II. The role of communist paranoia is mainly symbolized by real-life actress-turned right-wing columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren), who becomes the face of the imaginary conspiracies she promotes.

But Hedda is not alone in her quest to stamp out the imaginary threat of communism. She also has support from actor John Wayne, as well as the House Committee of Un-American Activities (HUAC), the government organization which would over see the anti-communist trials that would soon be coming. Hedda is quickly shown to be a bully when she begins using her press connections to promote anti-communist sentiment. We see Trumbo trying to enjoy himself at a movie theater, only to see a newsreel accusing several actors of communist ties in addition to himself. Afterwards, he finds himself greeted by a mean viewer who pours a drink on him and calls him a "traitor."

Trumbo is hardly a man to take this lightly. As annoying as the accusations are, he still continues to fight and devises a plan to work through the different levels of congress, hoping he can eventually reach a liberal majority who will listen. He tries to promote HUAC's actions as anti-American, appealing to the First Amendment (freedom of speech) but this proves unsuccessful. Not only do Wayne and Hopper work hard to make him look bad, but the studio executives are more interested in the seemingly more profitable government agendas.

At this point, Trumbo is facing problems along with several other screenwriters. Among the others is Arlen Heard (Louis C.K.), who struggles with being accused while also dealing with lung cancer. This is only a small sample of the people who would face blacklisting, and what we see here is only the beginning. Eventually, Trumbo receives a note saying that he is to answer to HUAC, leading to a montage of sequences depicting the hearings. All of these are shot in black and white, mimicking actual footage of HUAC trials, even replicating some of the same camera angles. As we move specifically into Trumbo's session, the scene fades into colour, but it is hopeless.

Trumbo tries to answer the questions, but still finds himself labelled a traitor. This is after he notes several reasons why the trial is unconstitutional, including a lack of evidence (as well as the prosecutor's refusal to present any) and noting that J. Parnell Thomas (James Dumont) has used his power to place family members in position of authority, none of whom are paying taxes. Ironically, Thomas is later convicted for tax evasion and sent to the same prison as Trumbo, and yet his initial ruling stays in place. As Trumbo notes, Thomas was the one who actually committed a crime. This is hardly any comfort, with Trumbo being ostracized by many of the prisoners and only able to find work the delivery service.

When he finally gets out of jail, Trumbo suddenly has to deal with a changing world. He returns home to find his daughter Nikola (Elle Fanning) who was a little girl when he left is now a teenager, an early visual cue towards the changes that take place. Unfortunately, his reunion is only a small amount of optimism in a cold world. While in prison, we hear a radio broadcast in which HUAC questions the actor Edward G. Robinson (Michael Stuhlbarg), previously loyal friend of Trumbo who now finds himself under pressure to give names. He finds himself unable to resist, and ends up labeling Trumbo as a communist. This only makes things worse when he and his family try to move, only to find their new home vandalized by neighbors.

But this alone is not enough to stop Trumbo, much as Hopper tries to destroy him throughout the film. Before going to prison, Trumbo continues to fight against the blacklist, even if he is unable to do so openly. It is not an easy fight, and it is one that threatens his personal relationships. He finds himself fighting more often with Arlen, and also becomes to have a more strained relationship with his family. We see that as he struggles to confront the blacklist, he becomes more distant from his wife Cleo (Diane Lane) and Nikola. It takes a long time for him to realize how far he has gone, and when he does it is a difficult journey to fix it.

Even so, Trumbo has managed to defy the blacklist so far. Before he goes to prison, he devises a plan with screenwriter Ian McLellan Hunter (Alan Tudyk), which involves the latter taking credit for his script and then sharing the profits, with the film being eventually released as Roman Holiday. After getting out of prison, Trumbo begins setting up an intricate network for ghost writing. He starts by making an arrangement in which he writes under different names for the King Brothers (John Goodman and Stephen Root), eventually hiring other blacklisted writers to join him. This does take care of his financial problems, but there are still other problems. Trumbo is unable to create anything worthwhile and the need for a constant output of screenplays strains relations with his family.

That is of course, until Trumbo decides to make a daring gamble. He writes a screenplay called The Brave One, which becomes a huge hit and even wins an Oscar. Hopper of course finds out and tries to bring an end to his career, making efforts to force the King Brothers to fire him. Unfortunately for her, HUAC is beginning to lose their power, and she almost gets beaten to death with a baseball bat. As we can see, McCarthyism is nearing its end. And he is not the only one fighting the blacklist either. Near the end of the 1950's, Trumbo finds approached by two big names: Kirk Douglas (Dean O'Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel), both of whom want him to edit a script for them. He is given the task of working on two screenplays: Spartacus and Exodus (both released in 1960).

It is also here that Trumbo is faced with a final daring but ultimately important gamble: revealing himself. Historically, Spartacus and Exodus both gained huge controversies for including Trumbo's name in the credits instead of an alias. Hopper becomes furious when she learns that Trumbo has still been working, and even attempts to orchestrate boycotts for Spartacus which almost get its funding pulled. Still, her power is weakened, and Douglas is able to blackmail the studio executives into finishing the project. When it finally comes out, Trumbo has the honor of seeing his name in the credits for the first time in a decade, and the blacklist finally starts to come to an end when Spartacus receives an endorsement from President John F. Kennedy.

The movie ends with a speech performed by Trumbo in 1970, where he looks back at the Blacklist. He explains that HUAC's actions and the blacklist affected everyone, and different people were forced to react in their own way. Some tried to maintain their values, others felt they had no choice but to protect themselves by giving names. Regardless, Trumbo reminds us that his story is only one of thousands of people affected by the blacklisted it inspired. He may have ultimately recovered, but there were many who never did. The film may focus on Trumbo, but it is really about the thousands of Americans whose lives were forever changed by the Cold War.

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