I finished watching the 2015 movie “Dalton Trumbo” today.
Bryan Cranston stars as the real-life blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter who in 1950 served 11 months in federal prison for contempt of Congress for his refusal to cooperate at a hearing of the House Un-American Activities Committee. Dalton was a member of the Communist Party USA from 1943 to 1948. He and nine other writers and directors became known as the Hollywood Ten and were fired by studio executives.
I was born in 1950, and my grasp of the McCarthy Era is built of caricatures. Wisconsin Senator Joe McCarthy: bad. Journalist Edward R. Murrow: good.
I was an undergraduate at Harvard in 1969, when Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) took over University Hall. Harvard President Nathan Pusey called in the local police to clear the building in a raid at dawn on April 10. I had left my freshman dorm, Wigglesworth Hall, in time to watch the bust in person, from the steps of Widener Library.
I was a hard-core moderate in those days, a political stance that has continued ever since. I had no love for the SDS, but I thought Harvard’s response was heavy-handed. Pusey seemed aloof, out of touch. I knew he had withstood attacks by Senator McCarthy in the 1950s. I figured Pusey had been a bold fellow on the right side of history then — not so much in my day.
Tonight, as I’ve Googled through pages and pages of commentary about Nathan Pusey and Dalton Trumbo, the truth seems more complicated.
Pusey publicly defended his university from McCarthy’s charge that Havard was “a sanctuary for Communists.” But at least one former Harvard faculty member has written that the university administration behind the scenes offered no serious resistance to assaults on civil liberties.
Trumbo the movie has come under attack for portraying Communism as “just an unpopular ideology,” thus soft-pedaling the horror of Stalin’s rule.
I understand why the makers of the movie might have preferred to offer a simpler version of history, one that portrays Trumbo in an altogether favorable light. It makes a more satisfying story.
But the makers subtly complicated that story by closing the film with Trumbo’s speech in 1970 when he received the Laurel Award for Screenwriting Achievement from the Writers Guild of America.
It appears that the speech as delivered by Cranston in the movie is what the real Trumbo actually said, decades after his blacklisting and imprisonment. But I cannot find a full transcript of the speech online.
“Thank you, thank you very much, ladies and gentlemen,” Trumbo says in his aging-smoker’s voice as he takes his place behind an ornate podium.
“When I stand before the film community, there’s an elephant in the room — me. And I thought I would address that.” This provokes gentle laughter. Trumbo reaches into his tuxedo jacket’s pocket for his speech and delivers it as follows:
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.
At this point background music begins to fill in behind Trumbo’s halting, emotional speech.
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.
If the real Trumbo could not find heroes or villains when he looked back on the Hollywood blacklist, he might have been surprised at the portrayal of his story in this movie.
What would not surprise him is to find that in a future time of fear, 18 days before a fraught Presidential Inauguration, many of us feel compelled to say or do things that we otherwise would not. The stakes seem too high for the old conventions.
That’s how Harvard felt to me in 1969. After the university was basically shut down for the rest of that year, my father drove in from Wayland one day in the yellow family station wagon. I joined him in the car, sitting in the passenger seat as we parked between Wigglesworth and Widener.
“If I ever find out you are involved in these student protests, I will stop paying your tuition,” he told me.
He needn’t have worried about the radicalization of his son; everything I saw that year drove me toward the disappearing center. I understood how fearful he was that I would get swept up in something terrible. I didn’t love how he made his concern known to me, but I figured he had every right to make his position perfectly clear.
I hope and pray tonight that we are not entering a time of new wounds inflicted on each other that will take years to heal.
Time will tell.