It's really difficult to project oneself back into the 1940's in America. First we were Allies with Russia in stopping the Nazi war machine, but then suddenly we became enemies, as fears of “The Red Menace” swept the land. The Cold War was beginning, and with it the establishment of the House Un-American Activities Committee, chaired by Joseph McCarthy, a self-appointed vigilante political group ferreting out suspected Communists, because they supposedly advocated the overthrow of the U.S. Government.

In the late 1930's and early 1940's, when Fascism was thriving worldwide, and people were concerned about exploitation of the poor and the “working class,” there actually were some social liberals who aligned themselves with the American Communist Party, thinking that they were advocating for positive things like decent living standards, and a raise in minimum wage (stop me if you've heard this). One of those “liberals” was Dalton Trumbo, a Hollywood screenwriter who was somewhat of an anomaly: successful enough to be rich, and yet passionately concerned for the plight of the poor. He was even known to argue with studio heads about the rights of workers on the sets to form unions.

Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) could have kept quiet about his personal political inclinations, but instead became an activist, helping to head up a group of other Hollywood figures, mostly screenwriters but also some actors, of self-avowed Communists. That was all the House Un-American Activities Committee needed: a focal point for their witchhunts. Inferring that these American citizens got their orders straight from Moscow, and were actually plotting anarchy and revolt, Trumbo and his cohorts were subpoenaed to testify before this saber-rattling Congressional committee, and if they refused to answer their questions, well, then they would be held in contempt of Congress, and jailed. Which is exactly what happened to Dalton Trumbo. (It didn't help that in the meantime a liberal Supreme Court Justice had died suddenly, leaving the Court without a sympathetic majority to hear an appeal.)

Dalton Trumbo actually served time in a Texarkana prison. And when he returned, he was still officially “blacklisted” in Hollywood, but found ways around it: he was the ghostwriter, for lesser-known Directors, where he was cranking out quantity instead of quality (and managing to find similar work for his fellow blacklisters). But finally, by the 1960's, the political climate began to change again, as President Kennedy viewed the film “Spartacus,” which Trumbo had written, and publicly declared that he liked it, which effectively curtailed the further persecution of the blacklisters. Eventually, in the early 1970's, Trumbo was officially recognized for his Oscar-winning screenplays. But it all took a toll on him, and on his family life.

It's a sad chapter in American history, but there are eerie echoes of some of the same issues today, with a rising hysteria about national security, accompanied by a push to abridge First Amendment rights, and curtail certain belief systems believed to be “un-American.” So the issues are still very current, even though all of these characters belong to a previous generation. Bryan Cranston is really convincing in this role. Good secondary performances, also, by Helen Mirren as Hedda Hopper (the flag-waving gossip columnist), and Diane Lane as Cleo, his long-suffering but loyal wife.

Now it's considered an honor to have been criticized by Joseph McCarthy and his ilk (like Richard Nixon). And Hollywood, at least, considers Dalton Trumbo to be a Gandhi-like passive resistance hero.

Is history about to repeat itself?

Questions for Discussion:

  1. Is there a belief system that you consider “Un-American”?
  2. How important is it to pay workers a living wage? What should the minimum wage be?
  3. Is Russia still the enemy?

Dr. Ronald P. Salfen is the Supply Pastor, First Presbyterian Church, Mabank, Texas