Dalton Trumbo had everything: a family, a successful career and money. All it took was the question, “Are you now, or have you ever been, a member of the Communist Party?” and it was all taken away. Trumbo, who did what we all would like to think we’d do in that situation—tell the House Un-American Activities Commission that a man’s choices are none of the government’s goddamn business—was effectively martyred with nine others who would become the “Hollywood 10,” in what is surely one of our country’s darkest hours.
Peter Askin’s film Trumbo, using a combination of interviews with historians, Trumbo’s family and associates along with actors such as Michael Douglas and Paul Giamatti reading from his letters and novels, is a well-rounded portrait of a blacklisted writer who never lost his ferocious wit and creativity—he eventually adopted up to 13 pen names in order to keep working, even winning an Academy Award for 1956’s The Brave One under the name Robert Rich (an Oscar he could not claim until 1975). Trumbo was no saint, but his refusal to buckle in the face of unimaginable cruelty is no less than inspirational. (If you never wept at the scene in the Trumbo-penned Spartacus in which every man yells, “I’m Spartacus!” you will when you see it here.)
The McCarthy era may seem a quaint memory to some, but in an era of wiretapping, charges of Communism leveled at presidential candidates and government-approved torture, it’s worth noting that the ones we’re most anxious to burn at the stake are sometimes the ones we should be putting on the highest pedestal.