It's 1951 and film director David Merrill (DeNiro) is the hottest guy in Tinsel Town until someone whispers his name to investigators of the U.S. House Un-American Activities Committee. The suspicion attached to him has appalling consequences in the tidal wave of hysterical paranoia that engulfed Hollywood and America at the time.
Truthful, moving and cautionary though Irwin Winkler's screenwriting and directorial debut is (at 60, after an already distinguished career as a producer of films including GoodFellas, Raging Bull and Rocky), it has to be said that Guilty By Suspicion plods a fairly drab and wearying path through betrayal and injustice. There are both interesting and fine performances - Martin Scorsese cameoing as a communist director (inspired by Jo Losey) who leaps to London one step ahead of his subpoena, Patricia Wettig (Nancy of thirtysomething) agonising as a star turned in by her husband, George Wendt (Norm in Cheers) crawling to save his screenwriting hide, real life blacklist victim Sam Wanamaker as a lawyer coaxing clients into compliance - and De Niro - is there a man in the world with a sweeter smile? - wholly engages the sympathies as the heartbreakingly hounded hero.
The pace drags terribly, however, and the period detail is distractingly off in small ways that become annoying - Bening is a pretty woman, so must she really wander the house in an underwire bra that hadn't yet been invented? And why is Wettig so hideously made up and lit? Thankfully, though, things perk up with a bravura finale, when Merrill finally takes the witness stand before the dreaded inquisitors.
Unlikely to set audiences on fire, Guilty By Suspicion does, however, give the lie to the chilling prophecy of Wanamaker's character "Ten years from now, who's going to care?" while illuminating the self-righteous hypocrisy still glimpsed in American political life today.