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Standing up to fear itself: A timely ‘Trumbo’

 Dean O’Gorman plays Kirk Douglas with humorous courage in “Trumbo.”

Dean O’Gorman plays Kirk Douglas with humorous courage in “Trumbo.”

I wasn’t planning to see the movie “Trumbo,” but I’m glad I did as it truly is a movie for our time.

It’s the story of Dalton Trumbo (Bryan Cranston) – a brilliant Oscar-winning screenwriter, born 110 years ago on Dec. 9 – who as one of the Hollywood Ten was blacklisted for refusing to testify in 1947 before the House Un-American Activities Committee investigating communism in the motion picture industry. (Trumbo was a member of the Communist Party from 1943 to ’48.) The film’s real subject, however, is fear and how it divides us – from others and from our better natures.

Much of the movie is taken up with the tightening vise around the film community that squeezed out the Party members, requiring them and others to denounce communism, name names and demonize those who didn’t conform to anticommunist fervor. I was struck most by those who called the bullies’ bluff, who simply said, “Screw it. You’re not going to tell me whom I can hire and give screen credit to.”

In one of the movie’s funniest and best scenes, a member of the fatuously named Motion Picture Alliance for the Preservation of American Ideals – which John Wayne (David James Elliott) helped form and for which he served as president – threatens Frank King (John Goodman), who hires Trumbo to write and doctor scores of B movies under various noms de plume. Whereupon, King nearly takes a baseball bat to his visitor. He’s getting plenty of sex and making plenty of money, King tells him – albeit in more colorful language. And no, he won’t be firing Trumbo to upset that winning team.

Others took a less violent approach. Kirk Douglas (Dean O’Gorman) and Otto Preminger (Christian Berkel) simply announced that Trumbo was the writer of “Spartacus” and “Exodus” respectively.

The point is that once you stand up to a bully, he has lost his power over you.

You don’t have to keep repeating your message. You don’t have to be violent (although Goodman’s King is, I must admit, a breath of fresh air after a parade of cowed nellies). You don’t have to announce what you’re going to do in retaliation.  And, perhaps most important, you don’t have to keep acknowledging just how scared you are. All that does is play into the bully’s hands.

What you have to do is simply go on with your life. Trumbo, who died in 1976 at age 70, kept writing. He may have lost screen credits and salary. But those are externals that may be lavished on you or withdrawn by others.

In internals, he remained very much the same.