Tuesday, May 31, 2016

Film Pairings — The 1950s, When the U.S. Constitution Was Threatened By Fear And Ignorance…Hmmn

Even though most of us acknowledge that the U.S. Constitution is not just the law of the land but is also the foundation for our coveted freedom, problems arise because we disagree on how to interpret it. In 1950s America, the country’s right wing became hysterically frightened of the word, “communist,” because it described the political philosophy of the Union of Soviet Socialists Republic, an increasingly influential power that, like us, had nuclear capability and, like us, had an inclination to spread their philosophy.  We were told repeatedly by the media and many politicians to be frightened of the “commies” among us. No one explained our differences in any intelligent way, only that they would bomb us into oblivion and to be very, very frightened. Bomb shelters were built. Children were traumatized by the impending doom.

Here are two exceptional movies that help shed a little light on those troubled times as well as offer a little perspective on the politics and press as we approach the November elections.

Helen Mirren & Bryan Cranston In Trumbo
Trumbo — Many of us were aware that Hollywood writers who supported unions and joined groups espousing communist views were called up in front of the House of Un-American Activities Committee, where they were harassed and accused of traitorous behavior in a spectacle devised by the committee specifically for the scandal hungry press.  If those summoned didn't name names of others who might have been curious about the American Communist party, they were blacklisted by Hollywood studios frightened of growing public opinion reacting to the politics of fear. Some, like Trumbo, went to prison for refusing to cooperate in what was a questionable legal proceeding.  Families and careers were destroyed.  This “red” scare” went on until the blustery, badgering, self-aggrandizing anti-communist Senator Joseph McCarthy (who suggested that even Eisenhower was a commie) was exposed for the bully he was by Edward R. Murrow.  Bryan Cranston creates a fascinating character in this 2015 was film directed by Jay Roach and based on the book, Dalton Trumbo, by John McNamara.  Diane Lane, as Trumbo’s wife, Helen Mirren as vicious gossip columnist Hedda Hopper and John Goodman, as a B-movie director are exceptional. While there is some criticism of the accuracy of all the situations presented in this bio pic, overall it is a fascinating reflection of the times, including members of the Senate abusing the First Amendment as well as exposing the wishy washy principles of many Hollywood producers.

Tom Hanks In Bridge Of Spies
Bridge of Spies — Much like Dalton Trumbo, attorney James B. Donovan, portrayed in an understated, yet nonetheless commanding performance by Tom Hanks. Donavan is a man who refuses to be pushed around and refuses to relinquish his principles even though he is paying a terrible personal cost.  Also like the movie Trumbo, Bridge of Spies recreates the mood of our country while it is battered by mammoth fear-mongering campaigns. We remain in the midst of the big red scare.  This too is a story based on real events: The trade of our spy, pilot Francis Gary Powers, shot down over the USSR, and Rudolf Abel, a KGB spy, in a subdued but also powerful performance by Mark Rylance. This too is a story that shows how scaring the public often threatens our resolve about living by the U.S. Constitution when it is inconvenient, when it seems at odds with our personal passion. Steven Spielberg directed. Matt Charman and the Coen Brothers wrote the screenplay.   Much credit has to go to the cinematographer Janusz Kaminski for his vision, particularly the scenes set in East Berlin.

It is important, especially now, to be alert when the media or the politicians try to convince us to be frightened of people whose lives are not the same as ours. Our lesson is to understand that to forfeit their rights is to forfeit our own.

To accompany tonight’s high-quality 1950s visit, we might just want a good cup of coffee.  However, to counter the sobering drama, a few sips of a good whiskey – on ice if it’s hot where you are — or some vodka in honor of the red scare might be in order.

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