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Film review: Trumbo

By Fabian Van Onzin |
November 28, 2015
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Protest in defense of the Hollywood 10.
Protest in defense of the Hollywood 10.

Houston, TX - Jay Roach’s new movie, Trumbo, is an excellent film about the American communist screenwriter, Dalton Trumbo. The film is a biography of Trumbo’s life, his political commitments and the severe repression he faced during the U.S. government’s blacklisting campaign of Hollywood leftists in the 1950s. Unlike most Hollywood films, Trumbo paints communists in a very favorable light, showing that they were committed to the fight for social justice and the struggle to improve the lives of working people.

The film focuses particularly on the work of American communists in Los Angeles during the Cold War. It has a brief scene at the beginning that shows some of the work that communists did with artist unions in Hollywood and their attempts to organize the film industry, particularly with the Screenwriters Guild.

Spoiler alert. The rest of this article refers to specific events in the film.

The film begins with Dalton Trumbo at a film premier for which he wrote the screenplay. They show an anti-Communist newsreel, causing audience members to mistreat and discriminate against Trumbo - one person throws a glass of wine in his face and calls him a ‘traitor.’

The film highlights the incredible pain the anti-communist crusade caused Trumbo’s family and friends. It shows communists as warm, friendly people who really care about the needs of others, and who want to make the world a better place. Yet, because of anti-communist hysteria led by Senator Joe McCarthy and others, they face hostility wherever they go.

One scene was particularly charming, in which Trumbo’s daughter asks him, “Am I a communist?” to which he responds, “If you see a fellow classmate at school who doesn’t have anything to eat, what do you do? Do you help him, or do you charge him a loan?” She responds, “I would share my lunch with him.” Trumbo warmly responds with a smile, “Then you’re a communist.” In the film, his daughter becomes a committed political activist in the civil rights movement, finding deep inspiration in her father’s communist political commitment.

The film quickly progresses with the birth of the Cold War and the expansion of the House of Un-American Activities, and the Hollywood blacklists. Trumbo and his comrades, all who are screenwriters and part of a communist-led screenwriters’ guild in Hollywood, come under severe attack. They are subpoenaed and required to testify in front of an anti-communist judge.

Trumbo and his comrade Arlen wittily defend themselves and refuse to admit to committing any crime. Despite an intense campaign with the slogan, “Free the Hollywood 10” they are blacklisted, and both spend two years in prison, after being charged with ‘contempt of court.’

The film then focuses on their lives after imprisonment and the incredible difficulty they faced as a result of the Hollywood blacklist. Trumbo and his family have to sell their home and live in difficult financial conditions, receiving threats from their neighbors (they find "Get out" painted in red in their backyard). They are unable to find work with any producer, all who express anti-communist fears and thus refuse to employ them. As a result, they were forced to write scripts for producers for lower compensation, and could not attach their name to any of their screenplays.

Trumbo is particularly relevant today in its depiction of political repression of communists, given that repression is a growing reality today. Cases like those of Rasmea Odeh, Simon Trinidad, the Anti-War 23 (which includes the communists of Freedom Road Socialist Organization), along with thousands of instances of repression faced by Arabs and Muslims illustrate the need to build a broad united front that can push back against these attacks on our democratic rights.

The film’s message is clearly a denunciation of FBI repression of activists and shows communists are progressive fighters for the improvement of humanity. A good film for the holidays that accurately depicts American left-wing history, Trumbo is a great film, with good actors, cinematography and a fantastic screenplay.