Director: Irwin Winkler. Producer: Arnon Milchan. Screenplay: Irwin Winkler. Cinematographer: Michael Ballhaus. Music: James Newton Howard.
A fictitious director of the 1950s and his family and friends are put through the wringer during the McCarthy Era and Red Scare. Director David Merrill (Robert De Niro) is a rising, successful and well known director in Hollywood who is returning home from film abroad in France and trying to deal with his family that is breaking apart at the seams. He is unaware of what awaits him upon his return. He has been accused by one of his friends and colleagues as being a Communist and has been called before the House Committee on Un-American Activities to testify on his innocence and give them names of Communists he knows, his friends and wife. During the struggling of trying to prove his innocence and take the higher moral ground and not point fingers to anyone; he finds himself unable to find and keep a job with any company, not even on Broadway or in a small camera repair shop.
This is a movie that gives anyone that watches a look into the past of America’s dirty laundry, exposing the troubles that people faced during the Hollywood Blacklisting caused by the forceful and unlawful trials during the McCarthy Era. It is rare that you can find a movie that not only gives the viewer a look at the bad past in America, but also doing with such great skill. Though Merrill is a fictional character created by the talented writing skills of Irwin Winkler, the problems he faced were very real to actors, directors, and all people in the Hollywood profession. As a historical fiction based on true events there is not a film that could better show what it was like to be in Hollywood during the inquisition of the American government.
Winkler not only wrote, but he also directed this epic film. Winkler’s talent of directing and writing makes you not only see and understand what it was like to live in the time, but his talents combined with De Niro’s great and talented acting (that brings like to Winkler’s imaginary character) you get to feel what is was like for Merrill. The sudden shock when he finds that he has been named as a Communist blindsides not only the character, but the audience as well. The introduction of the character and his friends gives us mostly just his view and that of his wife, so we never truly know what’s going on till he meets with the film company’s lawyer. This method of directing and writing really pulled you in to the experience and the shock that he feels. De Niro’s portrayal of the character is perfect, not only do you understand what Merrill is going thorough, but you feel for him and it makes you understand his decision to not play ball with the House Committee on Un-American Activities. Though he is going against the grain and taking a stand against an immoral and corrupt government that is trying to instill fear into its citizens and enemies alike, you don’t view Merrill as a great Martyr or saint. Winkler shows us that he is faulted himself with a family slowly breaking apart caused by him spending months at a time away working on films and that he seems to care more for his movies than his own family; he also in the past did participate in ban the bomb rallies. His life and struggles, during this sad time in American history, are shown to us in a way that make you still like the character and want him to be a bigger man than the rest and just say no.
Along with Winkler’s brilliant mind and an amazing cast of characters, James Newton Howard’s composition of music really sets the mood in your mind. He makes the feeling of the movie and the scenes burn in your mind and explode in the sound that matches the mood. This great team of talent might have been lost without the steady hands and great pivoting of Michael Ballhaus. His cinematography skills with Winkler’s direction made the perfect combination and helped carry the movie and give it a 50s feel. With a real life feel to the times, through the sets, props, and clothing; Leslie Dilley’s production design really makes it feel like the 50s, but without the whole Pleasantville and Stepford Wives feeling.
This movie right now in particular is an important film, linking us to a past mostly forgotten and beginning to repeat itself. In our present time with the government using the word “terrorist” to instill fear once again and unlawfully detain, question, and imprison people, we must look to this movie and the past to remember how it was for them. Today people are losing jobs from the same actions of the government that are portrayed within this movie, putting people on watch-lists and pulling them out of work to be “questioned,” because someone accused them of being a terrorist. Another recent connection from the McCarthy to the present is the recent passing of the NDAA that now gives the government the “right” to do all the same things that McCarthy pushed for during the Red Scare and shown within this brilliant movie.