By David Poland email@example.com
J. Edgar Review: The Short Form
I love Clint Eastwood’s directorial work. And I am, sometimes, shocked with the thinness of his directorial work.
It’s always beautifully rendered. It’s always got his strength and straight-forwardness.
But the car wrecks almost always seem to happen when he reaches for something too broad. He is great with intimacy. And trying to tell a 50-year life story in 2 hours 20 minutes ends up combining that skill with intimacy and a complete mess when it comes to the narrative.
J. Edgar has 3 themes. 1. Hoover was a closeted homosexual, 2. Hoover was a mama’s boy. 3. Hoover chose the first director of the FBI as his father figure and obsessed on that through his reign.
Or to put it more succinctly… in this version of is life, he had four and only people in his head. And he couldn’t let himself fuck any of them, even though that’s all he wanted. One was his mom, one became his secretary for life, one was his father figure, and one was his boyfriend.
And for me… I don’t buy it. Or at least, I didn’t buy it in this film.
I don’t believe that a man who did all that he did, fought all the fights that he did, didn’t change a fraction, in feelings or in action, from the time he was 20 until his death.
The portrait created here, by Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and Leo DiCaprio, is vivid enough. DiCaprio’s age make-up is brilliantly done and if they get that Oscar, it will be the one they (probably) deserve. (I can’t say I have surveryed all the make-up work this year.) And DiCaprio does a good job with the role, though his older Hoover never really convinces as a man over 50. He is the prototypical Eastwood character… unchanging, unswerving. The thing is, we are usually getting a snapshot of that man in a great Eastwood movie. Here, we are supposed to believe this is his entire life.
He did it in Bird. Brilliantly. But that wasn’t a stoic, unchanging life. There was real drama in that man every day of his life.
But think of Will Munny. His behavior in Unforgiven was a culmination of his life. Same with Walt Kowalski in Gran Torino. Same with the two lead characters in The Bridges of Madison County. And it’s true of Kevin Costner’s bad guy in A Perfect World and the general in Letters From Iwo Jima and others.
It’s at the core of Mystic River, as characters have different levels of ability to evolve though they all wish they could move on in one way or another. But in Mystic, there is a flashpoint that focuses everything. We are all changed. We are all unchanging.
But I didn’t get any of that from J. Edgar. And it felt like this was the theme they were after. A man tortured by his inability to blossom, who builds something remarkable as a result, but never lives. And that does dominate the film, though as I wrote before, I never really believed it. If you are that broken, that is the story. But in this case, there was a lot of history to cover as well. And doing both would have taken twice as long… at least.
So the infamous fights with The Kennedys becomes one scene about a sex tape and no mention of Bobby Kennedy running for President or being assassinated. His rage at King is oddly unexplained and simplified into Commie panic (for no apparent reason) and King’s assassination passes with a montage. The film is only vivid, though naive as his is young, in the first 30 minutes, when he goes after Emma Goldman. But even that is not given a clear voice.
It;s as though Eastwood and Black didn’t want to make a serious argument for his witch hunts, lest someone be inspired to follow. Even his dismissal of McCarthy is done in one line… a distinction between his own passion and what would seem to be a similar one that could have really spoken to his philosophy.
Instead, we get the “Hitler killed 12 million in camps because he only had one ball” notion of the history of a despot. I don’t buy it.
When I think of how brilliantly rendered some of Eastwood’s”stuck men” have been, I am all the more frustrated.
I’m not saying that a man, with core beliefs drilled into his soul by a dominating parent, and a secret he feels can never be told, cannot be driven to focus and greatness by this disconnect. But in this film, we get all the disconnect and none of the real fire. Hoover shouts a lot of orders and has a lot of specific rules, but these are the traits of a second banana, not the master builder and manipulator that Hoover was.
Really, what could be a more fascinating thing that an incredibly powerful man who all but lives with another man for 20+ years, but can never allow himself to believe he is gay or act on his sexual urges? But there are scenes missing if they really wanted to explore that. It’s there. The audience can project or extrapolate all day long. But it’s not in the movie. So when we get the 3 scenes of major sexual panic, they aren’t sad. They’re funny.
And honestly, I can’t say that the movie is clear on whether his closeted life drive his professional actions or not. If they didn’t, it’s too big a part of the film. And if they did, it’s too small a part of the film.
But this is also true of the other themes. How important was his fame seeking? How important was his fear of Communism? Was his anti-civil rights position only driven by fear of Communism? Did he hate the Kennedys because they has sex?
Yes, I get the argument that the audience shouldn’t have all the answers bottle fed to them. But a movie has to know what it thinks. This is not like an ambiguous ending in a movie about ambiguity. We get him from teen to death.
Very frustrating film. Very.