Movies bring back the ‘50s with lessons for today

Jake Coyle, AP film writer

Fear of unexpected strikes from overseas. Battles over First Amendment rights. Simmering tensions of inequality.

It’s no wonder the 1950s are all over movie screens.

Whether by fortune or fate, movie theaters are alive with stories — from the communist witch hunt of Trumbo to the lesbian injustice of Carol — that plunge audiences back into the paranoia of the Cold War and the social suffocations of the decade synonymous with Eisenhower, the suburbs and the ever-present threat of the bomb. By returning to the ‘50s, filmmakers are finding stories that illuminate the politics of today.

First came Steven Spielberg’s Bridge of Spies, a thriller that, at its heart, is about the justice America affords captured enemy combatants and the strength of a morally strong individual (Tom Hanks, who else?) to stand up against a national tide of overzealous patriotism.

After the 1957 capture of Russian spy Rudolf Abel (Mark Rylance), James B. Donovan (Hanks) struggles to give Abel a legitimate legal defense, a right that few agree he deserves. The film’s second half, when American pilot Gary Powers is downed in the Soviet Union, serves as a reminder — with clear echoes for the prisoners of Guantanamo Bay — of the value of treating prisoners of war the way a nation would want its own POWs treated.

For Spielberg, who vividly recalls crouching under his desk at school during duck-and-cover drills, the time of his youth is linked to the present.

“There’s so much relevance between the late ‘50s and today,” Spielberg says. “I lived through the Cold War and I was very aware of the possibility of walking down the street and seeing a white flash and being atomized. I was very, very aware of what a tentative and insecure time it was, especially for young people.”

In Trumbo, director Jay Roach resurrects Hollywood’s darkest chapter, when Dalton Trumbo (played by Bryan Cranston) and other screenwriters and directors — the Hollywood Ten — were blacklisted by the studios after refusing to answer questions about their involvement with the Communist Party posed by the House Un-American Activities Committee.

Suspected of “un-American” political beliefs, hundreds of other artists were refused work for years. HUAC presaged U.S. Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s anti-Communist crusade.

“There are periods of time when fear takes over, the last time being these last 14 years,” said Cranston, drawing a parallel to post-9/11 surveillance.

While the ‘50s climate of Trumbo was more feverish than it is today, recent rhetoric on Syrian refugees and the rights of Muslims in the United States has, for some, recalled the era’s pitched politics.

“In our political environment these days, the use of fear and outrage and victimization is very common,” Roach said. “I feel like it’s just as much a film about today as it is about what it was back then.”

Boycotts are also again being called for some of Hollywood’s biggest names. Police groups have said they will boycott Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight after the director protested police brutality. Tarantino has defended himself by citing his First Amendment rights.

“It’s still happening in different forms,” says Nikola Trumbo, daughter of Dalton Trumbo. “I mean African-American kids being shot by the police on a regular basis. This country building a wall to keep out our Latino neighbors is shocking and appalling. And then there’s Edward Snowden.”

Carol is director Todd Haynes’ second trip to the ‘50s following his Oscar-nominated Far From Heaven (2002), a story in the style of a Douglas Sirk melodrama about a Connecticut housewife (Julianne Moore) who discovers her husband (Dennis Quaid) is gay and begins an affair with a black man (Dennis Haysbert).

In Carol, adapted from the Patricia Highsmith novel first published under a pseudonym and titled The Price of Salt, Haynes again mines the tragedies of the decade’s social constrictions. Cate Blanchett and Rooney Mara star as two women drawn together — a romance later cited in a “morality clause” when Blanchett’s husband seeks custody of their child.

“We probably are at our own peril underestimating how much was really brewing in the ‘50s that became evident in the ‘60s,” Haynes says. “There were a lot of questions being asked as well as a lot of anxieties and conformity being expressed.”

Those underlying strains are also at play in Brooklyn, the Colm Toibin adaptation about an Irish immigrant (Saoirse Ronan) who lands in a New York not so different from the midtown of Carol — one where both freedom and restriction surround women trying to go their own way.

That these films have arrived all in the space of a few weeks owes much to coincidence. (The script for Carol was first penned 18 years ago.) But after the stylish ‘50s resurrections of Mad Men and Tom Ford’s A Single Man, it’s apparent that no decade offers the same mysterious blend of convention and nonconformity, in quiet collision, as the ‘50s.

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