First writing-directing effort by vet producer Irwin Winkler squarely lays out the professional, ethical and moral dilemmas engendered by the insidious political pressures brought to bear on filmmakers in the early 1950s. Robert De Niro is excellent as a top director brought down by reactionary paranoia. But the drama comes to life only fitfully.
De Niro portrays David Merrill, a director on a roll who lives only for his work. Arriving back in Hollywood in 1951 after a European sojourn, he soon finds the atmosphere changed. Charged by a colleague as having attended a couple of left-wing meetings years before, Merrill is asked by 20th Century-Fox boss Darryl F. Zanuck (Ben Piazza) to cooperate with the House Un-American Activities Committee before proceeding with his next big production.
After a disagreeable meeting with an attorney (Sam Wanamaker) and a HUAC rep, Merrill, refusing to cooperate, finds that the chill sets in almost immediately. He is yanked from the Fox film, listens to his agent demand back a $50,000 advance, looks to lose his house and hears his 10-year-old son doubting him. Worst of all, no one will return his calls.
Looking raffish and trim, De Niro perfectly conveys a charming, quiet confidence at the outset. During the extraordinary appearance before HUAC, he finally blossoms into a man of conviction and passion. The actor pulls off this last-minute transformation beautifully.