The best way to ensure a hot-button documentary doesn’t disappear is to get someone famous to rally behind the film. Jim Carrey’s Twitter diatribes against Gov. Jerry Brown signing into law mandatory childhood inoculations in California has given the 2014 docu Trace Amounts new life. Now, Mance Media has acquired and set a September 4 U.S. release for the Janek Ambros-directed Imminent Threat, and the film will get the hefty help of James Cromwell, star of The Artist, L.A. Confidential, Babe and so many other films. The picture takes a critical look at the War on Terror and asks if too high a price has been paid in paring back hard-fought civil liberties, freedom of press and other basic American rights in the name of keeping the country safe.
Cromwell just signed on as executive producer and I’m always curious when a celebrity lends his name to support a film after it has been made. I moderated a panel for The Artist a few years back, and Cromwell stole the show, regaling my audience with stories of how his actress mother Kay Johnson and actor-director father John Cromwell transitioned from silent film to talkies. So I rang up Cromwell, and it didn’t take a lot of prodding to get him going on his agreement with the film’s cautionary message, that we are being duped and stripped of fundamental rights under the guise of imminent terror threats being used to power the will of special interest groups.
“I believe very strongly in the film’s message that we are either living in a police state, or getting very close to it, leading to a totalitarian state,” Cromwell said. “This sounds fairly paranoid, I know, unless you have read the articles that exposed the overreach of the National Security Agency’s trampling of civil rights, or you’ve seen people from government agencies lie to congress, or the president lie in front of the American public. What they are doing directly contravenes the Constitution, the Bill of Rights, and the civil rights we have fought for. And it is not getting any better or making us safer and they just juke to one side when cornered. Congress has placed itself in the difficult position of expanding the American empire, and the idea that not only do we need to be the world’s police force that responds to any outpouring of a cry for justice, or a representative government with freedom and civil liberties. And then we always seem to be wind up on the wrong side of that struggle because so much of this has to do with economic interests. We’ve created an intractable enemy which seems to be expanding, and our technique in dealing with terrorism is to claim everybody else who is against you is a terrorist.
“I know there are people out there who mean America harm, and there is good reason to be vigilant,” he said. “But we’ve seen people in the Occupy movement being called terrorist and others who object to our policies be considered terrorists and placed on watch lists, infiltrated, entrapped and sometimes killed. We have a rule of law in this country, habeas corpus, which means you show cause if you are going to assassinate an American citizen at home or abroad. 9/11 was for the most part committed by people from Saudi Arabia. Did we attack them? Did we force them to justify or change their philosophies or ideologies? No, we went after Saddam Hussein even though any informed intelligence officer would have told you he and Osama bin Laden were on opposite sides. President George W. Bush lied to the American people about weapons of mass destruction. I listened later to a UN inspector who spoke at Sid Sheinberg’s house who said, ‘We have found nothing, but we are going to be at war by July, mark my words.’ Obviously, it was an excuse to destabilize the Middle East and gain control of Iraqi oil.”
Cromwell feels the film helpfully explains how FISA courts have empowered a system of surveillance that has gone so overboard that actual useful intel often gets lost in the sheer volume. “We have done so much eavesdropping around the world that we protect the mechanism of surveillance at the cost of civil liberties, which is a step down the road toward totalitarianism,” said Cromwell. An animal rights activist, he feels even from his own experience that surveillance is used against those perceived as enemies of powerful special interest groups. “People I know in the field of animal rights, who work for reforms in slaughterhouses, against euthanasia in medical testing, well, their phones are tapped,” Cromwell said. “I believe this is also true for opponents of fracking, gas pipelines, oil, mining, Big Pharma and Big Agra, all of these powerful conglomerates.”
Cromwell became attuned early to the high price paid by finding yourself on the wrong side of a political groundswell. It happened to his film director father, who was blacklisted during Senator McCarthy’s heyday. “I’ll tell you why my father was blacklisted, if you have the time,” he said. “The House Un-American Activities Committee had lost its mandate, and was on the verge of being dissolved. They decided what they needed was press coverage, and someone said, go out to Hollywood, where they’re just brimming with communists. Guys like Robert Montgomery and Adolphe Menjou were only too happy to help and then they figured the committee figured it would get a lot of publicity if they got people to name names. My father was the president of the Directors Guild and at one time had been a member of the Hollywood Democrats, a liberal organization, but then he got busy and left. They moved a little more to the left, maybe you’d call them progressive Democrats. My father had a party at his house, where four members of the Moscow Arts Theater were invited. They explained to my father what happens to young people who graduated from the conservatory. They were sent to the provinces to perform, and gradually they made their way back to Moscow, so they were fully seasoned and had a chance to perfect technique, and they were not overwhelmed by the attention and pressure of performing in the largest theaters. So my father said, that’s how it should be done here. We take the best and brightest from New York or California, and they have a helluva time getting a job, and we use them up quickly and they’re gone. That’s no way to develop talent.”
Cromwell said a harmless conversation was turned into something else by Menjou, a staunch anti-communist who was nominated for an Oscar for The Front Page in 1931, and before that starred in Charlie Chaplin’s A Woman Of Paris. “My father was at his house in Oregon and went to the mailbox and found Life Magazine had done this whole story on Menjou, who said that the biggest communist in the whole of Los Angeles is John Cromwell. This was based entirely on overhearing my father’s conversation with the Russians and the gentle criticism of how Hollywood handles young artists. My father had left New York before the communist movement and he missed the whole period when the Communist party tried to enlist members and got involved in unions.” Cromwell was called in to testify, based on Menjou’s accusation. He testified same day as Bertold Brecht, who charmed the committee, and, the younger Cromwell said, “was the only real communist in the bunch, but he got a commendation for his testimony and went right to the airport and flew to East Germany.” His father had it rougher. While the committee accepted his explanation that he had nothing to do with any of it, he was ordered to publicly apologize before the committee. When he refused, Cromwell was blacklisted.
Cromwell said that could have harmed his father, but circumstance, and Howard Hughes’ zeal to punish those accused of being communists, actually cushioned the blow.
“My father had just signed a $1 million contract with RKO to make pictures, and then Dore Schary sold the studio to Howard Hughes, who was completely caught up in hating communists,” Cromwell said. “So he tried to force my father to do a film called I Married A Communist. My father knew what he was up to and said, I’ll do it, but the script is so terrible, it needs a rewrite. Months passed and they could not get a make-able script and it got to where by contract they would have had to pay him double. So they bought him out, and gave him the full sum of $1 million.”
Cromwell said by now his father had grown disillusioned, and while he bought a building in Beverly Hills, he relocated to New York where he won a Tony starring with Henry Fonda in Point Of No Return on Broadway. He continued to thrive on the stage and eventually returned to movies, playing roles in two Robert Altman films. “My father didn’t really suffer,” Cromwell said. “He had friends who supported him, but people like Robert Montgomery cut him so badly that he said, I will never go back there. It does show you what can happen when you start this kind of paranoia. I feel strongly about all this, and I believe we are people can change this country for the better, but it’s up to individuals to take this seriously, to organize and protest and put your body on the line. If not, there will be no democracy and a very good chance we won’t have a planet.”
Cromwell was just back from publicly speaking out on behalf of a woman who drew a 30-day stretch for liberating a couple of ducks from a farm that uses them to make foie gras before destroying the animals.