It was only in May that I had a quick note in a morning warm-up declaring the 2015 film “Trumbo” an ethics movie. That it is, but subsequent developments have made me realize it is much more, including frightening.
The film, starring Brian Cranston as the most famous member of the “Hollywood Ten,” now is a glass of ice water recieved full in the face, shocking viewers into the realization that the George Floyd Freakout is the catalyst for a second wave of McCarthyism. This one varies from the first in that the current version is being fueled by the Left rather than conservatives, and that it is far more violent, and potentially more dangerous.
After watching the film again and reviewing the history, for “Trumbo” is easily the best film about the blacklist, there is no question in my mind that this is true. Previously, I regarded the use of “McCarthyism” as a useful if over-used metaphor, like “witch-hunt.” (“McCarthyism” usually refers to the oppression and intimidation of the entire “Red Scare” period, including the blacklist, which was Fifties for “cancelled.” The “Hollywood Ten” were victims of the fascist House Un-American Activities Committee, which was separate from the vicious Wisconsin GOP Senator, but “House Un-American Activities Committee-ism” doesn’t roll off the tongue well.) Now it is evident that we are witnessing in the United States a mutated clone of what occurred across the country in the beginning of the 1950’s, with “racist” the current label being used to bully, silence, and ruin careers and lives, rather than “Communist.”
It is also clear to me, after viewing the movie in the ugly light of the events occurring across the country, that the solution today is the same as the solution the movie chronicles. Citizens, especially prominent and successful ones, must muster their courage, integrity and dedication to American values to resist the threats, refuse to apologize, and defy the efforts to silence and intimidate them. They must also accept the unpleasant consequences until their opposition bears fruit and the madness subsides, so sacrifice is also required.
As in the Red Scare period, the madness is inspired by good intentions. Then, rational people were convinced that protecting the nation against the threat of Communism was a matter of survival, justifying suspending civil rights and basic ethics. The ends justified the means. They were horribly wrong (just as dewy-eyed, naive post WWII activist, intellectuals and artists like the Hollywood Ten—and Pete Seeger, Paul Robson and Bernie Sanders—who admired Stalinist Russia were horribly wrong) but we should not demonize all of them (McCarthy, though, was an irredeemable villain, as another excellent Red Scare movie, “Good Night and Good Luck” documents), just as we shouldn’t demonize all of the current activists who are trying to destroy our democracy and culture to banish “systemic racism.” They are wrong too, that’s all. But these people, for all their good intentions, still must be opposed.
At the conclusion of the film, a reflective, somewhat mellowed Trumbo gives an acceptance speech as he receives the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America in 1970. He says, after some introductory remarks,
The blacklist was a time of evil. And no one who survived it came through untouched by evil. Caught in a situation that had passed beyond control of mere individuals, each person reacted as his nature, his needs, his convictions, and his particular circumstances compelled him to.
It was a time of fear. And no one was exempt. Scores of people lost their homes. Their families disintegrated. They lost — and in some, some even lost their lives
.But when you look back upon that dark time, as I think you should every now and then, it will do you no good to search for heroes or villains. There weren’t any. There were only victims. Victims, because each of us felt compelled to say or do things that we otherwise would not, to deliver or receive wounds which we truly did not wish to exchange.
I look out to my family sitting there, and I realize what I’ve put them through. And it’s unfair. My wife, who somehow kept it all together, amazes me. And so what I say here tonight is not intended to be hurtful to anyone. It is intended to heal the hurt, to repair the wounds which for years have been inflicted upon each other and most egregiously upon ourselves.
Thank you. Thank you kindly.
That’s the end of the film, and it is apparently what Trumbo really said.
That conciliatory sentiment , however, came a decade after the blacklist ended, after there had been time to analyze what had occurred and why. The blacklist ended in part because Trumbo and others refused to be intimidated. They defied those who tried to silence them, and kept fighting. Trumbo and the Hollywood Ten went to prison for “contempt of Congress,” meaning that they refused to apologize for their words and beliefs or name others who had similar political beliefs.
I suspect that the current fever will take even more courage and fortitude to break than the Red Scare, particularly with most of the news media openly sympathizing with the race-baiters, the rioters and the statue-topplers. Nonetheless, the nation needs its heroes now. Anyone who apologizes to the mob is strengthening it.
“Trumbo” makes this clear. And the clear parallels between the upheaval he survived and what we face today show that the nation is in serious trouble.