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Non-Review Review: J. Edgar

I’ll concede that I’m surprised how much I liked J. Edgar. Acknowledging that I’ve been a lot fonder of Clint Eastwood’s more recent output than most, and accepting that this film (like many of his recent films) has considerable flaws, I found it a fascinating examination of twentieth century America, explored through the lens of one character’s life. While it isn’t nearly objective enough (and is far too sensationalist) to be considered a truly effective account of the life of one John Edgar Hoover, it does offer a thoughtful meditation on the relationship between old and young, the corruption of moral responsibility and the lingering doubt that maybe our generation’s elders have somehow disappointed us. It’s in these reflective moments that Eastwood is at his strongest, hitting on themes the director knows especially well. Unfortunately, it is undermined by its handling of the famed FBI director’s personal and sexual life, if only because it completely lacks subtlety and nuance.

There's a lot on the line...

The film covers a large amount, considering the runtime. Eastwood and Black fit in a tremendous amount of back story and personality into their profile piece. The movie uses a framing sequence of the character reflecting on their earlier life, common to a lot of biographies – most recently seen in The Iron Lady. Here, Hoover is preparing his memoirs. However, Black’s script elevates the sequence by toying with the film. As Hoover tells his story, he seems to edit his own movie to a certain extent. His directions to the young agents documenting his accounts are almost directions spoke to Eastwood.

Towards the end of the film, Tolson himself challenges Edgar’s account of certain events – suggesting that a large number of events are “exaggerations” or “blatant lies.” It seems quite cleverly reflexive, with this version of Hoover editing his own memoirs to serve his own intended purpose, as if conceding that, outside of that, Eastwood and Black are doing the same thing. “What’s important at this time is to re-clarify the difference between hero and villain,” he insists, cleverly stating his own intended purpose in direct opposition to what Black and Eastwood seem to be doing. Hoover is literally trying to control the film that he’s in, and he can’t make it serve his own purpose because it’s not his film. I’m a sucker for meta-fictional elements like that, and I respect the fact that both the writer and the director seem to concede that they have a clear agenda in constructing the movie, within the movie itself.

Watts on the cards...

To be fair, the script acknowledges that’s it’s dealing with somewhat disputed territory. Hoover and numerous agents assigned to help him document his history serve as an opportunity for writer Dustin Lance Black to comment on what he’s doing, and how factual history ultimately ends up as a tool in the hands of those with an agenda. Discussing Bruno Hauptmann, the man executed for the kidnapping and murder of the Lindbergh baby, Hoover acknowledges that his version of events are contested, but insists that the evidence backs up his position.

One can almost read it as a defense of the more controversial aspects of this bio-pic, which are equally contested by various sources. The film seems to draw almost exclusively from Anthony Summers’ Confidential: The Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover, which claims to have carefully researched sources substantiating various claims of Hoover’s sexual conduct and the other skeletons in his closet. However, the movie freely admits that it isn’t about history. Drawing attention to the fact that Hoover’s accounts are unreliable, and revealing several key scenes as fabrications, those revelations throw the movie’s entire factual basis into doubt, and intentionally so. Instead, Black’s script acknowledges that history is tool that is often bent to a specific purpose. Hoover would use it to service his own need for adoration, while Eastwood and Black would conspire to use Hoover’s story to offer their own commentary on the nature of power in the twentieth century.

Zooming in on his life...

I think that’s a clever device, and one that tips Eastwood’s hand slightly. The movie is obviously a biography of one of the most controversial figures of the twentieth century, but it’s an exploration of themes Eastwood has handled time and time again. In particular, it’s a look at the relationship between the old and the young, and the moral responsibility that an older generation holds towards their successors. “A society that is unwilling to learn from history,” Hoover quotes at one point, “is doomed.”

To Eastwood, history is cyclical – it is repeating, endlessly. Hoover has lived through it all, as Eastwood reminds us by exploring the relationships between Hoover and several of the Presidents who died in office. There’s focus on the Kennedy family, and on the Roosevelts, with Hoover outlasting them all. Hoover is always in opposition to “radicals.” It’s Bolshevik terrorists, the successor of turn-of-the-century anarchists, and then it’s gangsters and then it’s the Civil Rights movement or the anti-war lobby. The movie opens with a terrorist bombing, teases us with glimpses of panicked blackouts and riots, and shows us soldiers returning from a foreign war to be attacked by their fellow countrymen. All these from the first decades of the twentieth century, and all echoed through the first years of the twenty-first. It’s skilfully done.

"Speed" reading...

Hoover infringes on civil liberties, but he does so by appealing to fear. He hides his aggressive attacks on privacy cleverly, getting in touch with the zeitgeist of the time. He affirms his powers through “the Lindbergh Law”, not too dissimilar to language like “Megan’s Law.” His rhetoric is powerful, but recognisable – if Charles Lindbergh’s family can’t be protected, who is safe? He’s the master of the “photo op”, and he wins his war on organised crime by turning the media against these gangsters. He converts James Cagney from “Public Enemy No. 1″ to a “G-Man.” These are familiar techniques, and Eastwood does well not labour on them. Nor, surprisingly, does he demonise Hoover unnecessarily.

If anything, while acknowledging his substantial flaws, Eastwood is almost sympathetic. Hoover invented forensic science, fighting an establishment that resisted change. He genuinely believed that the United States was under constant threat of internal revolt, and all his actions stem from a misguided patriotism. Eastwood concedes to the character his successes, even as we observe the cracks deepening with age.

Suck it up, man...

Black’s script cautions about the nature of power and its ability to corrupt, with Hoover’s willingness to “bend” the rules developing into political blackmail, itself feeding into Nixon’s reckless wiretapping of the media and press, which would lead to a lasting scar on the American psyche. Hoover believed himself to be acting to protect the country, but his methods weren’t too dissimiliar to those used in other countries. As President Truman wrote of the FBI Director, “We want no Gestapo or secret police. FBI is tending in that direction.”

There’s something tragic in the notion of a man seeking to protect his country, and yet warping it so completely, only enabling wilder indiscretions and moral compromises. Eastwood’s drama works well when dealing with these grand themes, studying Hoover as some sort of grand and immovable object stuck in the middle of a century when America truly defined itself. Of course, it also plays off the more general themes we’ve seen in recent work from Eastwood.

Hearing aides (and senators, too)...

A great deal of the movie explores the Lindbergh baby case. Of course, it’s important to any history of the FBI, but the movie still rests rather heavily on it. Josh Lucas gets fifth billing on the posters for playing Charles Lindbergh. The case is important to Hoover, but it’s crucial to Eastwood. So many of the director’s recent works have been focused around weak and dependent younger characters who depend on those older to protect them. Films like Changeling, Mystic River, or even Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. It’s notable that, in the majority of Eastwood’s work, the older characters either fail, or are forced to compromise themselves to try to help, or both.

J. Edgar feels like a continuation of that theme, and positions itself quite well within Eastwood’s filmography. Hoover does horrible things, but Eastwood never loses sympathy. Hoover believeshe’s doing right – that he’s breaking the rules to make the world a better place. Hoover’s mother suggested that Lindbergh’s baby died for the sins of its parents generation, and maybe she’s not too far wrong. She is a bitter old homophobe, but that doesn’t mean she’s not right about the general idea – but Hoover’s best intentions are quickly corrupted.

Well suited to the task...

It’s telling that the US President featured most prominently is Richard Nixon, indeed he’s the only President to appear as more than a disembodied voice. Eastwood suggests that Nixon learned a lot from Hoover. (Indeed, he’s desperate to get his hands on the infamous “secret files.”) Nixon is, according to Hoover, “a menace.” According to Eastwood Nixon’s somebody who will use Hoover’s means, but lacks even the skewed moral compass that Hoover had in the first place. It’s on this sort of stuff that Eastwood’s movie works best.

Technically, however, the film is a bit of a mixed bag. The cast is solid. Leonardo DiCaprio is a convincing leading man, and it’s to his credit that the film even barely holds together when Eastwood delves into the more sensationalist aspects of Hoover’s life. Armie Hammer is solid as Tolson, but he receives no favours from his make-up. While the make-up on Naomi Watts is good, and the latex on DiCaprio isn’t bad, Hammer’s make-up renders him like a decrepit plastic Kevin Bacon, pushing the older version of the character firmly into the uncanny valley. It looks surreal at times, and it’s very difficult to watch Hammer emote through that stuff.

Two gown men arguing...

The film holds together remarkably well for most of its runtime, with Eastwood and Black favouring a non-linear approach. It’s grand, because we all know the broad strokes of the story anyway. However, the film struggles a bit as it gets towards the ending – it’s a common problem in these biographies. Death is the logical end-point, to be fair, and the film does cover it, but the final act never seems to reach a conclusion on the film’s subject. It just sort of drifts through the character’s later years. It’s a shame, because most of the movie is quite tight up to that point.

Of course, the way the film handles the relationship between J. Edgar Hoover and his “number two man” Clyde Tolson has been the subject of much discussion and debate, and it’s hard to talk about the film without covering it in some fashion. The script by Dustin Lance Black is never especially subtle in its observations and insinuations about the bond the two men shared. Indeed, Tolson is introduced in the framing sequence as a lumbering shape glimpsed through a frosted glass door. “Ignore that,” Hoover informs his biographer, who is furiously documenting the director’s memoirs. This section eats up a lot of the film’s runtime, and simply isn’t as compelling as the rest of the movie.

No Kenn(edy) do...

I’m not suggesting that this sort of approach to Hoover’s life was inherently improper or anything like that – Hoover’s sexuality is one of the most hotly-debated aspects of his personal and professional life, and to ignore it would have felt strange. The problem lies in how Eastwood and Black tackle the suggestion that Tolson and Hoover harboured a homosexual attraction to one another. It seems surreal that the movie so freely trades in gay stereotypes. Alone together, in their pyjamas, the two men bitch about women’s fashion together. It’s the most fun it seems Hoover has over the course of film as he mocks a woman’s hairstyle with the help of a couple of flowers. Tolson picks out Hoover’s clothes, and straightens his collar for him. When Hoover reveals salacious details of Eleanor Roosevelt’s private life to his colleague, Tolson is eating snacks out of a cardboard and gasping “no!!!” in the most flamboyant manner possible.

And, of course, Hoover’s mother is a key part of his life, and Black and Eastwood zone in on her as the cause of Hoover’s frustration. When he’s out on a date with his secretary, he insists, “Call me Edgar. My mother does.” Not only does she push her son towards greatness with a zeal reserved for helicopter parents (“you’ll be the most powerful man in the country”), but she seems to know her son’s inclinations and is no uncertain terms opposed to J. Edgar becoming what she describes as “a wilting flower.” He makes it clear to her that he doesn’t enjoy the company of the fairer sex. “I don’t like dancing,” he states, when explaining why he was so uncomfortable. “I especially don’t like dancing with women.” Cutting through the metaphors, his mother uses this moment to pretty much flat-out state what a disappointment a gay son would be to her. “I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”

Secret-ary?

Black and Eastwood suggest that not only did such a domestic atmosphere leave Hoover emotionally stunted, but it also led him to project his own self-loathing on to others. One of the film’s most fascinating images presents us with an elderly Hoover listening in on a recording of Martin Luthor King’s indiscretions, having given strict interruptions not to be disturbed. There’s a sense that Hoover resented King for being able to indulge in an intimacy that Hoover never could, but even this feels slightly overplayed by the time the movie wraps up. Indeed, it seems almost like Hoover harbours a fifteen-minute Martin Luthor King obsession, thanks to the movie’s non-linear structure. Indeed, one thinks that the movie might have been more effectively able to combine both Kennedy and King’s indiscretions, seen as they occurred in quick succession, rather than dealing with one and then the other.

However, all that would arguably be fine of itself. It’s more than a bit on-the-nose, but it makes sense to an extent. The problem isn’t the suggestion of Hoover’s latent homosexuality itself, it’s the way that Black and Eastwood handle it. They tackle Hoover and Tolson’s relationship in the most obvious and forced terms possible. The dialogue is incredibly awkward, as if neither writer nor director trust the audience to grasp the subtext, which might as well be superimposed over the screen. “I need you, Clyde,” Hoover flatly states at one point. Reflecting back in his later years, he observes, “I never needed anyone… not like that.” As the two have a fight, Hoover pleads, “Don’t leave me!” This is over-blown melodrama that has nothing to do with the sexual orientation of the characters. It feels more than a little tacky, more than a little cheesy, and it robs Black and Eastwood’s take of any real sense of nuance or subtlety.

Hoover in a vacuum?

Still, despite these considerable flaws, I liked J. Edgar. I think that it’s a worthy addition to Eastwood’s impressive filmography, even if it never really succeeds as a portrait of the eponymous character. Instead, it works best allowing the director to comment on the nature of power and responsibility, and the corruption of moral authority. Those are grand themes, and the movie does them justice, for the most part. If only it didn’t seem so sensationalist and overblown in dealing with the private life of the controversial Mister Hoover. It wasn’t as if there isn’t enough compelling material without turning up the melodrama.

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2 Responses

  1. This isnt my favourite Clint Eastwood film but it was a lot more enjoyable than the reviews set it up to be.Thatll teach me not to listen to them.Is that picture with Helen Gandy holding the cue cards actually in the film? I don’t remember it?

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