It’s easy to pass judgment on other people instead of remaining focused on the power of ideas.

Keep that thought in mind — we’ll revisit it later in this piece.

For now, though, remember this: Dalton Trumbo followed the road less traveled, sticking to the substance of his cause and not taking resistance personally. That central part of his story — one dimension of a very complicated man portrayed by the great Bryan Cranston (nominated for a 2016 Golden Globe Award on Thursday) — makes Dalton Trumbo an American worth celebrating.


However, great people should not merely be celebrated from a distance, safely applauded well after their lives end and the tumult of their times recedes into history.

The tumult of one era gives way to turmoil in another. The specific forms and contexts are different, but the larger patterns are the same. Dalton Trumbo is not just a man to be celebrated from a distance; he’s a man to be emulated in the 21st century, nearly 70 years after the great trial of his life began.

Celebrating a courageous person without following his example rings hollow. That’s why Trumbo, beautifully paced and stylishly directed by Jay Roach — and based on the book by Bruce Cook — is such an important movie.

That Trumbo is also thoroughly entertaining makes it a beacon of hope for us, and for future generations of Americans who will take the time to watch it in 2035, 2055, and 2075 — 100 years after Congress finally stopped investigating people over the suspicion of being affiliated with the Communist Party. (Yes, the practice didn’t end until 1975.)

There’s no need to shield you from the plot of the movie, because it is based on a wrenching chapter of American history. The anti-Communist panic which spread through the United States in the late 1940s and early 1950s created forces which, once unleashed, were hard to restrain. One such series of forces led to Hollywood’s blacklisting of movie-industry professionals who refused to answer questions before the United States Congress, chiefly the House Un-American Activities Committee (HUAC), in 1947.

Dalton Trumbo and other members of the so-called “Hollywood Ten” were cited for contempt of Congress. Beginning in June of 1950, Trumbo served 11 months in federal prison in Ashland, Ky. Yet, that was just the beginning of his punishment. Once he emerged from prison, Trumbo could not apply for the big screenwriting jobs he was more than qualified to perform.

A National Book Award winner for Johnny Got His Gun (1939) and an Academy Award-nominated screenwriter for 1940’s Kitty Foyle, Trumbo should have had the pick of the crop in terms of assignments from Hollywood. In the movie, certain characters such as Arlen Hird (Louis C.K.) are fictional representations of various people in Trumbo’s circles. In this sense, the movie is an interpretation of history more than a direct re-creation of it. Yet, what’s definitely real from the film in its portrayal of the era is that powerful men were brought to their knees… and their limitations.

In the face of exposure and pressure generated by powerful Hollywood gossip columnist Hedda Hopper (Helen Mirren, also nominated for a Golden Globe), Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer boss Louis B. Mayer (Michael Portnow) distanced himself from Trumbo. For Mayer and other major studio executives, the hope of getting great screenplays from the likes of Trumbo took second place to being free from political pressure and public disapproval. Such was the pulpit Hopper enjoyed at the time, and such was the strength of the emotions which gave rise to the blacklist and, beyond the realm of Hollywood, the scourge of McCarthyism.

Trumbo, in response to this climate, had to write garbage B-movie screenplays to create a steady income, one which had been depleted after the legal fees accumulated by his fight against Congress a few years earlier. Beyond writing crap for the King Brothers (who needed the inventory), Trumbo decided to write high-quality screenplays under false names. When Roman Holiday won an Academy Award in 1953, Ian McClellan Hunter was credited with the screenwriting prize, but Trumbo was the actual author. Working for Frank King (John Goodman) and King Brothers Productions, Trumbo wrote The Brave One, which gained an Oscar in 1956. However, he used the name Robert Rich for that film.

It wasn’t until Spartacus and Exodus (1960) that Trumbo was given a writing credit under his actual name. Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) was Trumbo’s advocate for Spartacus, and the director Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) supported Trumbo in Exodus. Those events marked the end of the blacklist’s power in — and over — Hollywood. Yet, the ordeal consumed roughly 13 years of Trumbo’s life and career. The pressures of having to work around the clock to crank out scripts (for the King Brothers) very nearly tore apart Trumbo’s marriage and family. Yet, wife Cleo (Diane Lane) held the family together, and Trumbo had the good sense to listen when confronted by his wife with the ugly truth: He had begun to treat his wife and children as servants, not as independent beings with their own lives and needs.


Prison might not have scarred him that much, but repression from the culture and his employers severely altered the way Dalton Trumbo and his family lived their lives. It certainly wasn’t for the better.

What did Trumbo — in examining that period of his life — say about his experiences and what they meant for America? That’s the real heart of this movie.

The two-hour journey is richly spiced and flavored with Trumbo’s humor and wit — conveyed deftly by Cranston, a master of his craft. However, when the laughter subsides, Trumbo’s humanity and gentleness created an example for all Americans to follow.

We’re not afraid of Communists in our country anymore. However, after the horrible shooting in San Bernardino, Calif., last week (Dec. 2), a lot of people are afraid about being in the wrong place at the wrong time when someone chooses to commit a violent act. People are on edge, and when that’s the case, fear enters into public conversations. This, in turn, leads to hostile interactions and a climate of mutual suspicion. It becomes nearly impossible for people with competing views of the world to trust that the other side has a legitimate set of beliefs. This isn’t about mere disagreement; in moments such as the San Bernardino shooting, Americans with competing ideological leanings are reminded how much they hate their foremost opponents.

This is becoming a trend in American life: Certain phrases or statements which — on their face — are perfectly noble and benign are twisted into negative comments. “All lives matter” — a notion which should be free of controversy — is seen as racist (at worst) or counterproductive (at best) because it undercuts the “black lives matter” movement.

In the wake of the Charleston, S.C., shooting earlier this year, any vocalization of the need for reconciliation and healing among Americans was viewed as “part of the conservative racist playbook,” because (so the reasoning went) many politicians give lip service to the notion of reconciliation as a way of diluting political protest. Yet, on its face, reconciliation and healing are value-positive things. Context has turned good into bad, reaffirming divisions between and among Americans.

This has continued in the immediate aftermath of San Bernardino.

Many people on the left side of the political spectrum reacted angrily to expressions of “thoughts and prayers going out to the people of San Bernardino.” Why would a value-positive action such as praying be viewed in a markedly critical light? Similar to the Charleston incident, expressing the need for prayer — in the eyes of the critics who pounce on such a statement — is a way to divert attention from the actual problem.

Surely, in a politically and ideologically fractured nation, Americans can separate a good act (praying, wishing for reconciliation, etc.) from cynical manipulation of such acts. Logic tells us this can and should occur, and that one can disapprove of politicians who do nothing in the face of atrocities. Legitimate disagreements about the proper responses to gun violence can and should take place. Denigrating the act of praying, on the other hand, should not.

Yet, logic doesn’t seem to hold in these fear-dominated circumstances.

This goes back to the very beginning of this piece: The specific forms and contexts of a situation might be different, but the larger dynamics of fear and panic are the same. It is easy to view the other side as evil. It is easy to assume the worst motives on the part of those who disagree on a contentious and important political issue. It is easy to say that standing on the wrong side of an issue makes a person or group worthy of humiliation and scorn.

Dalton Trumbo lived through so much resistance to his unpopular Communist views over an extended period of time. Yet, Trumbo was merely holding a set of ideas. His ideas did not advocate violence in word or action to other people. He was not a physically violent person. The most violence he did to others came in the form of the words he knew how to use so artfully.

That this difference of internal worldview — extended in and through many other people of like mind — was absolutely unacceptable to a large group of Americans in the late 1940s and early 1950s should have opened our eyes to the idea that we’re supposed to allow each other the right to be wrong… as long as we don’t encroach upon another’s life. As long as we leave each other alone in a central, physical sense — fighting battles of intellect and policy but never wishing ill or harm to befall our opponents — we should be able to sustain almost any set of differences in the world of ideas.

Dalton Trumbo not only believed this; he lived it.

Trumbo — after all he endured — could have become an embittered and vengeful person in his later years. However, if you watch this film all the way through to the end, you’ll see that he carried his ideas in a generous and respectful way. He didn’t blame people for opposing him and making his life difficult; he blamed the forces and crosscurrents which made it hard for people to live in freedom from fear and anxiety.

Dalton Trumbo ardently clung to his beliefs and his ideological outlook. However, he remained focused on the content of his ideas and how to express them to a wider audience. He didn’t view opponents as enemies, as people who didn’t sincerely want the best for society. No, he made sure to recognize the humanity of political opponents, so that he could speak to them in a climate of respect and openness to new thought.

Left or right, black or white, socialist or capitalist, we as Americans will disagree on most topics. Being willing to listen to each other — such that we don’t blacklist suspected Communists or denigrate the act of prayer — is the hallmark of a thoughtful, civil, democratic society. It’s also a defining characteristic of a healthy society, because when we are willing to test our ideas against each other, we’re not living in a state of fear. We’re not living in ways which bring about negative health effects such as blood pressure and panic attacks and decreased sleep.

Nearly 70 years ago, runaway fear of a group of people brought about a dark era in American history. Now, in 2015, the fear of gun violence — something processed very differently by people on the left and right sides of our polity — is once again dividing our nation.

The easy inclination is to breathe fire at the other side and view those people (left or right, depending on your perspective) as enemies, obstacles to progress, people who truly want to harm the country.

(AFP/Getty Images)
(AFP/Getty Images)

Dalton Trumbo carried empathy toward all people, even though he was as opinionated and outspoken as anyone in his day. He fervently fought for and defended his ideas, but he constantly aimed to persuade people instead of assuming their motives and intentions were malevolent.

This is the essence of Trumbo and its two-hour trip through the Blacklist era. Today, Americans across the political spectrum are still imprisoned by fear, leading to crossfires in which otherwise-good people say things that are meant to wound, not heal; to damage, not enlighten. After watching Trumbo, an American citizen should become convinced of the need to be empathic toward one’s fellow men and women.

This is a meaningful and enjoyable movie for Americans of the present day and age. It will be meaningful tomorrow. It will be meaningful in the 22nd century. Bryan Cranston and the rest of a superb cast have left behind a cinematic work which will always offer the right message to a country in search of itself. It is for this reason that the movie needs to gain a wider audience in the midst of so many compelling and appealing holiday choices at your local multiplex.

No matter what the current day’s political crisis might be, Trumbo — if its true underlying emphasis is adopted — can serve this country well in any future period of division, polarization, and mutual social distrust. Dalton Trumbo’s life wouldn’t just be celebrated; it would in fact be emulated.

Our country — so desperately in need of healing, something to soothe the intense pain created again and again by violence — needs the example of Dalton Trumbo to come to life across the nation. Bryan Cranston made that example come to life on the big screen; it’s up to moviegoers to give this film a chance… and experience the transformative power of the story Mr. Cranston and his cast-mates so artfully manage to tell.

About Matt Zemek

| CFB writer since 2001 |