The fear-based manipulation as seen in TRUMBO is something that its director, Jay Roach, doesn’t see as ending with the demise of the Black List. It was one of the last things we talked about on November 12, 2015, but it may be the crux of the reason that Roach wanted to make his film about the effect of the Black List on both Hollywood in general, and on the family of the eponymous screenwriter in particular. We started, though, with my surprise that the House UnAmerican Activities Committee, the Congressional committee tasked with exposing the Communist threat to America, existed in until 1975, despite being discredited for its excesses, including throwing Dalton Trumbo and others into prison for refusing to answer its questions. It led to Roach explaining exactly why it was so personally and professionally risky for Kirk Douglas to credit Trumbo as the screenwriter of SPARTACUS.
A thoughtful man, with a calm demeanor and a precise way with words, Roach went on to discuss what fascinated him about Trumbo’s complex personality that could be both compassionate and biting, the anti-Semitism of America in the 1940s and 50s, attention to detail that extended to the exuberant crumple of a character’s collar, and what he’s learned from making TRUMBO about how to be on the right side of history.
TRUMBO, based on the rise, fall, and eventual vindication of screenwriter and author Dalton Trumbo, who survived the blacklist without compromising his principles, but also without ever losing his humanity. During the Cold War that followed World War II, public opinion, driven by both true believers and political opportunists embarked on what came to be termed a Witch Hunt for big “C” communists working for the government, in universities, and the entertainment industry. Instead of a valid investigation into traditional and potentially damaging espionage, the frenzy began targeting individuals whose political views were not in keeping with what the House UnAmerican Activities Committee deemed genuinely American. Trumbo, a self-proclaimed communist, and unrepentant believer in equality and social justice was targeted as one of the Hollywood 10, forced to appear before the committee, and subject to imprisonment for not answering the committee member’s questions. With the studios unwilling to risk being associated with him, Trumbo wrote two Oscar™-winning screenplays (ROMAN HOLIDAY and THE BRAVE ONE) under assumed names, ran a thriving operation to keep his fellow blacklisted writers working, and lived long enough to see a more enlightened political era that looked back on the Blacklist with bemusement. The film stars Bryan Cranston as Trumbo, and co-stars Diane Lane, Helen Mirren, Michael Stuhlbarg, Louis C.K., Alan Tudyk, Elle Fanning, John Goodman, Stephen Root, and David James Elliot as the John Wayne we don’t remember. Roach directed from a script by John McNamara, which was based on the book of the same name by Bruce Cook.