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By David Poland

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.

34 Responses to “J. Edgar Review: The Short Form”

  1. Anghus says:

    Havent seen J Edgar yet, but im of the school that Clint Eastwood is the most heavy handed director in drama. He is so prone to playing single notes harder and harder until the strings break.

    People like Eastwoods work because he can get a reaction from an audience, but he gets them by slowly tapping the same beat over and over again and turning up the intensity. He creates very moving, very singular moments that are emotionally powerful even if they dont make sense.

    Gran Torino has this grizzled old racist who hates the world, until one day he has lunch at his neighboors house. Then suddenly 60 years of hatred subsides because he hung out with his hmong members of his community. As if racism could be cured over a lunch.

    Its cinematically convenient. And thats what Eastwood is, a director who prefers convenient, easily packaged choices and emotions. His characters can have simple motivations which can turn on a dime when the plot requires. Audiences like dramas that they can understand and that lack complexity.

    Look at The Help. Good movie. Well acted. Would you call any of the characters complex? Are any of the characters motives or motivations not paper thin? Popular dramas are quite often the ones that are easy to get on board and tie up every loose end.

    Eastwood films, more often than not, are very well acted, very well staged, simple stories. Sometimes hes able to play that one note beautifully. Sometimes he strums it too hard and you end up with Invictus.

    I like a lot of Eastwood films, but I would never call his work “complex”. Hearing J Edgar features a complicated character with exceptionally simple motivatios seems par for the course. Eastwood is many things, but as a director hes a “meat and potatoes” storyteller. You get everything you need, but its usually a very simple dish.

  2. GexL says:

    It makes me happy when a small-town talented unknown like Dustin Lance Black comes out of nowhere with screenplays for awards-calibre films like MILK and J. EDGAR. Bravo, Dustin!

  3. Rob says:

    I’m already bracing for the backlash amongst my gay brethren once they figure out Leo doesn’t do any Hammer-slamming in this.

  4. Could it be that the point is he was driven by empty ambition, fear and generally muddled thinking and is the ultimate example of that sort of politician/ a man who maybe never should have been in office to begin with but the system allows for such anomalies to happen? And that seems to me very much a message for our time, if that is the case.

    I haven’t seen the movie yet but already the trailer seems to be pointing towards some of what I say above:
    “When morals decline… and good men do nothing… evil flourishes.” <Leo saying it in a voice that, hilariously, sounds like an introduction to a trailer to a blockbuster; shows J. Edgar's limited black/white understanding of morality. Next we see an explosion, that is difficult to categorize as evil exactly, seems maybe more like terrorism, or madness.
    "A society unwilling to learn from the past, is doomed. We must never forget our history." Indeed. But what history — or histories — is J. Edgar unaware of? Does he understand MLK's reasons for doing what he does?
    "We must never lower our guard." So here we see has an obsession with being a guard, on account of his limited moral understanding maybe.
    We see his mother promising him great power. Maybe he feels entitled now; she doesn't tell him here: "You will work your way up and with luck achieve a position from which you can find the way to help the people." Which involves a lot more contingents.
    "It is my belief when a man becomes a part of this bureau, he must so conduct himself, as to eliminate the slightest possibility of criticism as to his conduct." Firstly, this line-up scene is a little bit like a Man Pageant, so already you wonder what's happening underneath the elaborate speech. Secondly, we see more obsession with guarding appearances. And also, a concern about being criticized.
    "I need someone I can trust. I want you to be my number 2 man. You understand, I need you." This one is self explanatory, especially with Social Network hulk "Arnie Hammer" as the number 2 man.
    "Imagine if every critizen in this country were uniquely identifiable by the pattern on their fingertips." Okay, so his obsession with keeping guard shows its first signs of more serious obsession. On the other hand, this also identifies him as a prophetic visionary in this one regard, as he foresees future movements to more and more identification and spying on citizens…
    Then we see a shot of an arrested man having his face shoved in reporter cameras, needlessly really.
    "You remember that file we created on his wife. Will you make a copy for me please?" So, okay, this definitely getting creepy now. Signs of utter control freak and/or narcissist able to rationalize any of his whims.
    Example: "Is that legal?" "Sometimes you need to bend the rules of your country a little bit in order to keep your country safe."
    "Please leave the transcripts here with me." "Your free to share them with your brother, Mr. Kennedy. Let him know that I have a copy of my own."
    So we see this record keeping thing starting to spiral out of control of individuals in power, becoming more of a paranoid that's become mandated. We also get the sense he may be jealous of Kennedy, or intimidated by the way they don't seem to fear the Edgar.
    "The president is afraid." says J. Edgar. Takes one to know one.
    "All the admiration in the world can't fill the spot where love goes."
    We see an unhappy Edgar in black limousine, then first (hand-knee) sign of gayness.
    "We are sinners Edgar. We tolerated lawlessness in the land until it grew to diabolical proportions." Oversimplified morality from his mama again and as we see various shots of criminality — both diabolical white collar and brutal gangster — we get a sense that maybe the problem is that this was always out of the control of a few men in government and the pressure of believing it's your destiny/identity to deal with that is enough to make anybody go mad, or rather, madder than they already are.
    "The blood is on your hands Edgar." Shot of film noir like Edgar down a dark street.
    "What are your *exact* qualifications?" asks a Judge. So here we start to wonder if Edgar is really equipped to deal with the complexity of the nation's problems. On the other hand, on a "spiritual" level (as in this is who he is, can't imagine himself as anybody else) he is the ultimate choice for the job. His head isn't there though and he's emotionally unbalanced.
    "My qualifications sir?" He is offended even by the question.
    Then we see the tables turned as he has built his own prison and is now flash-bulbed by reporters and recorders…
    "I don't know who I can trust anymore." Arms himself with gun, totally lost it now. Would probably take side of any legislation now that appeals to him personally, could rationalize to say it's for the public.
    "I see right through you, you're a scared heartless horrible little man."
    "Don't wilt like a little flower, be strong." She says as she wilts like a little flower and implies she is not strong.
    "Yes mother" says a disheveled Kane-like Edgar.
    We see a raid. There's nothing there. A handful of nothing. An empty dream. His team was misled. This is a possibility, being misled. He doesn't process that notion to the rest of his life.
    "It's time this generation learned the difference between villain and hero." So now he's making up superhero fantasies.
    And we see John Dillinger's plastered face, almost as if J. Edgar wanted to keep him locked up forever for personal viewing, though this shot is not per se in J. Edgar's home, editing suggests it may as well be.
    Also, the blank express, white and unremarkable plaster face suggests moldability and a lack of personal identity. (Michael Mann's "Public Enemies" a few years ago showed Dillinger, on the other side of the gun, to also be a self-centered opportunist. These men were made for each other.)
    Also, when Edgar says "hero" he's sitting on his bum, doing nothing. Ye's he's looking thoughtfully (at what?) and scowling (relentless anger, he's full of hot air) but that's a far cry from his mother talking about complacency. This is a man who hasn't put himself out there, like cops do fighting crime, or soldiers do fighting a war,
    or MLK dying for a cause.
    Edgar "fights" from a far away post, where he commands others and gets the credit for their work. (If he was a more complex politician, then maybe we could say he does more than that but he's a delusional extremist who doesn't even really fit into conservative ideals.)
    He is washed up, old, there's no hope of being the great saviour now, that time has passed, but he refuses to play supporting role.
    "Even great men can be corrupted." Is he seriously talking about himself as a great man? What is this Walter White from Breaking Bad?
    And then we get this strange, ghostly, eerie final shot of him aged, withered, an old fart, taking off glasses and looking away from the camera.
    He could be Caden Cotard wandering the post-apocalypse of his aimless dreams in "Synecdoche, New York."
    And, yet, with Leo playing them, there's also this sense of a youth trapped inside an old man's body, Benjamin Button but at the end of his life with al the knowledge of personal failings. Though he doesn't even know how bad it (he) really is.

    In other words, the trailer sold me on a portrait deliberately of a very confused, overglorified man who is very confused simply because… he oversimplifies. In some ways, that's a radical statement, to say J. Edgar was only interesting historically because he was a gaping black hole that would suck up everything in his way. And, the suggestion, by association, is that this is in big part where the modern trend towards surveillance and hyper-recording and bureaucracy and twisted politics and so on comes from, more or less an inability to admit you were wrong or seriously question your world and take a look at yourself (again, he takes his glasses off, looks away from camera, retreats into a dark room, a black hole) and wonder where you should be fitting into all this, if anywhere at all.

    Again, I think this is for our time as people increasingly retreat into simplicity.

    I also say all this as somebody who is not normally a huge fan of Eastwood movies and I have only seen "Milk," which was okay, haven't seen "Big Love" so that's about my familiarity with Dustin Lance Black's work as a whole but he seems smart enough and caring and likes broader strokes, like Eastwood. Yet, I think this trailer was sort of is interesting precisely in its defiance of trying to find a single thread to perfectly pull through J. Edgar's life. Who says we all have that? (Or should?) Moreover, who says a movie needs to be completely true to the man's life either? Movies are not books full of details, they are more like sketched general impressions.

    But I haven't had to sit through the whole movie yet and that may give me a different impression. Trailers are not movies. I just wanted to suggest that what you're talking about narratively may not be by accident and that you're focusing a lot on plot pieces (and what you perceive as missing pieces) without pointing to evidence in shots or edits or specifics of performances and, ya know, the stuff that cinema is actually made of.

  5. film fanatic says:

    Given that Clint is pretty famous for not rewriting or developing scripts (often to his credit), would it then be fair to blame the facileness on Black, whose MILK script, in retrospect, was also pretty damn facile and overrated? Let’s blame Clint for signing off on the miscast DiCaprio. I won’t blame him for not being able to get a convincing performance out of him, because no one else besides Cameron or Lasse Halstrom has ever been able to, either (which bascially means his only convincing performances have been, respectively, a young foppish pretty boy and a ‘tard, which doesn’t say much for Leo’s range).

  6. Tuck Pendelton says:

    My wife said to me “if there’s one movie we’re seeing this year, it’s J Edgar.”

    I thought Mystic River was over-rated, Invictus was surprisingly great. The latest one with Damon started good, but went awry towards the end. Clint’s minimalist style can be incredibly effective, or it can be just blandly not intricate. Just depends.

  7. berg says:

    good point about the “tap the same note over and over” … that summarizes Clint’s composition of his soundtracks

  8. Rob says:

    I was tearing my hair out with boredom during Invictus, Flags of Our Fathers, and Hereafter, but I consider Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima masterpieces. Overall I’m a huge fan of Clint’s elegiac style, but the material doesn’t always pull its weight, in my opinion.

  9. American Patriot With A Gun says:

    In this propaganda piece, right out of the lefty field of Clint Gayboy Eastwood, one of Hollywoods eminent faux toughguy failures, J. Edgar Hoover is being depicted as a homosexual with a relationship with a man who in real life was his sworn 24/7 bodyguard who would take a bullet in his head for America, Americans and American Freedom. Something eastwood and dicaprio would never contemplate doing.

    Although they would never contemplate it, it will likely surely happen with this little propaganda piece seeing the light. And that, even in the realm of Americas enemies, is truly “entertainment”.

  10. LexG says:

    This thread was already an oasis of batshit fucking insane opinions even before the above. Big Hollywood is down the road and make a right, sir.

    Has everybody lost their fucking minds today?

  11. chris says:

    I’m with Rob in that I’m often annoyed (“Gran Torino,” the worst film of that or most years, that godawful one with Jolie, “Million Dollar Baby” with those awful family scenes, “Flags”) but sometimes blown away (“Iwo Jima,” especially, in which the “plays the same not” criticism, with which I generally agree, does not apply).

  12. LexG says:

    Again, INSANE… Anyone who reveres Clint sees Gran Torino as an Unforgiven-like culmination of his tropes, themes and performances over the years… Plus it’s just funny listening to him swear and grimace and make fun of minorities, it NEVER GETS OLD, it’s like a whole movie based on the tantrums of his character in The Rookie.

    Eastwood all the way, on everything, he is God. I won’t stand for this BULLSHIT, Gran Torino is one of his best, and anyone who doesn’t love it is a straight-up asshole.

  13. Rob says:

    Oh, Gran Torino is a blast, I agree. And a great example of a movie that just comes out of nowhere and connects with the public in a genuine way.

  14. MarkVH says:

    Flags Of Our Fathers is a better movie than Letters From Iwo Jima.

  15. LexG says:

    Letters From Iwo Jima is great, but to be 100% HONEST in a way no other white man would dare be: I couldn’t really tell any of the actors apart. To a degree that it affects my enjoyment of the movie… Even an hour-plus in, I’m still like, wait, is that the guy with the horse? Is that the guy who’s the rebel? Is that the guy…

    I suspect every dumb-ass white guy who watches it felt the same but wouldn’t admit that.

  16. torpid bunny says:

    If I send in the form will the NRA mail me a decoder ring for that comment Patriot with a Gun?

  17. LexG says:

    I don’t think APWAG is gonna pipe back in, but even as a big Rick Perry-liking nascent Republican asshole, as long as I’ve lived I’ve never understood how “taking a bullet for your country” was some MASSIVELY HEROIC THING– like, I’d be dead, so what do I give a fuck?

    I know a lot of my friends and family are big right-wing might-makes-right BLOWHARDS, but at the end of the day, WOULDN’T YOU RATHER BE ALIVE?

    “I’ll DIEEEE for my COUNTRY.” Like, have at it, shitkicker. I’ll be over in France being ALIVE.

  18. a_loco says:

    Gran Torino is sure entertaining, and funny. But it’s also one of the least subtle movies ever made, and all those critics who apologized for a serious piece of cinema back in ’08 should be ambarrased. Not to mention, THOSE KIDS COULDN’T ACT AT ALL, something NO CRITIC wanted to mention, and Clint’s habit of only doing two takes of any shot probably didn’t help much.

    Not to mention, what was up with that scene where Clint fixed the washer (or dryer, I don’t remember), and all the kids who were too cool for the grown up part were like ‘WTF, dude?’

    Also, when the dweeby looking main dude got that cute chick just because Clint was all like ‘go after her, kid’ COMPLETELY UNBELIEVABLE. Jus’ saying.

  19. a_loco says:

    WHOAH, should have proof-read that post:

    *all those critics who treated it like a serious piece of cinema back in ’08 should be embarrased

  20. Krillian says:

    Loved Gran Torino. Loved it. Except for the black gangstas who seemingly drove right off the lot of Boyz N the Hood.

    Was let down by Hereafter so I’m hoping he can come back with J. Edgar, but up to this point, it’s looked like a semi-sequel to The Aviator.

  21. David Poland says:

    “Flags Of Our Fathers is a better movie than Letters From Iwo Jima.”


    My take on Gran Torino is still the same as it was the moment after I saw it. It’s a very smart commercial film. It’s not a great film or an awards-worthy film. But Eastwood doing camp can be great.

    And I believe that J. Edgar will have 3 clips that will play on a loop in every gay bar in the world that plays movie clips on a loop. They are high camp at its best…. as good as Bette Davis.

  22. LexG says:

    How is Jeffrey Donovan?

  23. Sideshow Bill says:

    So the age make-up is good? I thought it looked poor in the trailers, and I am always distracted by age make-up on big stars. They never seem to get it right. Plus, the movie looks like a mess. Wife wants to see it but I think it’ll be a dvd for me.

  24. David Poland says:

    He’s good, Lex. About 4 minutes of camera time, maybe.

    Leo’s make-up, good. Armie’s not so good.

  25. MarkVH says:

    ““Flags Of Our Fathers is a better movie than Letters From Iwo Jima.”


    Oy yourself. I know it’s a minority view, but although neither is a “great” war film, Flags is far more complex and interesting in that it reaches for a lot more in its dissection of propaganda and mythmaking, and it also happens to feature some very strong war filmmaking.

    Letters is an utterly conventional American war film that just happens to have Japanese people in it. It’s been a while since I’ve seen it, but I remember sitting in the theater thinking that Eastwood could have made the same film using American actors (minus the trite and overly simplistic “they were just like us” theme) and it wouldn’t have been received half as well. It’s cliched and formulaic whereas Flags at least attempts to put forth ideas.

  26. Pat says:

    Eastwood couldn’t have made the same movie with American actors because the characters not behave like Americans in the story. The Japanese soldiers are from a different culture with different prorities. The movie might have showed small ways in which we are similar, but the primary theme was how different the soldiers were.

    Flags put forth ideas, but not new ones. Are we supposed to feel bad for these boys stuck on a morale-boosting tour of America? What..morale isn’t important during wartime? Every U.S. soldier in WWII would have known it was. And its hard to sympathize with their survivors guilt. Everybody lost friends in that war. And don’t start me on the whole desaturated color thing that Eastwood and Spielberg are hung up on. Did the sun disappear from the solar system in the early 40s? The south Pacific looked a lot more like Thin Red Line than Flags of our Fathers.

  27. MarkVH says:

    “Eastwood couldn’t have made the same movie with American actors because the characters not behave like Americans in the story. The Japanese soldiers are from a different culture with different priorities. The movie might have showed small ways in which we are similar, but the primary theme was how different the soldiers were.”

    That may have been the intention, but it’s a failed one. Most of the film, if I recall, takes great pains to humanize the Japanese troops, but it makes the crucial misstep of using American war movie cliches to do so – young soldiers fearing for their lives, looking at pictures of loved ones before battle – all American war movie cliches. If he’d really want to show how the Japanese were different he wouldn’t have sanitized the viciousness of the Japanese tactics (which he does) and would have looked beyond the surface to who these people actually were. Instead he resorted to conventional war tropes and, IMO, ended up with a noble failure.

    And I’ll agree that the ideas in Flags weren’t new, but that doesn’t make them uninteresting or worth dismissing outright, and at the very least they were presented admirably. The color desaturation was an aesthetic choice that was curious,and didn’t impact it positively or negatively for me. Not a great movie, but for me a far more three-dimensional one than the more cliched Letters.

  28. cadavra says:

    Yeah, but David–how does it compare to Larry Cohen’s version with Broderick Crawford?

  29. Sam says:

    “And don’t start me on the whole desaturated color thing that Eastwood and Spielberg are hung up on. Did the sun disappear from the solar system in the early 40s? The south Pacific looked a lot more like Thin Red Line than Flags of our Fathers.”

    Do you also complain that The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari features unrealistic architectural structures? Then there’s that bit in Vertigo, where the winding staircase distends itself when Jimmy Stewart is overcome by his fear of heights. I hate how the movie leaves that question unanswered: was the staircase rigged with a mechanical device that did that, or was it magic, like Hogwarts or something?

  30. Jude Wharton says:

    Don’t you proof your work before you dump it on the web? Seriously man, go through this thing and fix it.

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  32. - says:

    my oh my that exactly what i would like might be.

  33. How Now says:

    Retreads, POST American cultural incest and demoralization
    as Eastwood and Hollywood generally, continue
    to BURY without a trace 6 decades of anniversaries
    for the cosmically relevant, EUGENICS ‘unfriendly’

    ————–KOREAN WAR—————.

    Clear this 70’s Show ‘EYE–CON’ –job —off! your


  34. James says:

    As a biopic J.Edgar was quite interesting for the uninitiated.

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