Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J. Edgar Movie Review

Earlier this year I wrote a review of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter that complained of my weariness with his recent lazy filmmaking. I almost began this review of his latest film, J. Edgar, the same way until I went back and read that one. But the fact remains that his biopic of the man who was director of the old Bureau of Investigations and then first Director of the FBI for a total of 48 years is tired, boring and absurd. This is lazy storytelling at its worst.

J. Edgar Hoover always was and remains to this day something of an enigma. We know him as the paranoid director who supposedly investigated his enemies and people he believed to be subversives and radicals. He’s widely suspected of illegally wiretapping and of keeping secret files that were ultimately never recovered (at least in full). There is strong suspicion he was a deeply closeted homosexual and may have maintained a long-term relationship with his number two man Clyde Tolson. There’s even some silly speculation that he was a cross-dresser. But we don’t know much about the man and his motivations for his paranoia and his jealousy when it came to FBI agents who absorbed more of the spotlight than he could stand.


Written by Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning talent behind the excellent Milk, J. Edgar hardly seeks to respond to any of the mystery and instead presents a tableau of the man’s life and some of the important things he did and many things we have no confirmation he did. It presents all of this, including a love affair with Tolson, as fact. This gets into dangerous ground when we have a movie presenting itself as a true story which is taking long-standing allegations and suspicions and throwing them up on the screen as if we have historical evidence to back it up. Lacking any evidence in support of or to the contrary, Clint Eastwood’s film will, by default, become the document of record for most people.

J. Edgar covers the big events during J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) tenure with the FBI, from his initial mission to arrest and deport anarchists and political agitators whom he saw as a serious threat to the nation (it’s hard to ignore the modern day parallels with foreign terrorists and the unfortunate way many would be happy to oversee the deportation of all Arabs to achieve the end goal of security in our country) to the investigation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and later the assassination of JFK. One admirable thing Eastwood’s film does is to show the ways Hoover revolutionized Federal criminal investigations. The FBI today is one of the finest investigative bodies in the world thanks to Hoover’s ideas about not contaminating a crime scene, keeping a database of criminal fingerprints and setting up forensic laboratories to build evidence. What makes him such a compelling figure is that he did all that and still managed to become a pariah in many circles.

Black’s screenplay places too much emphasis on his homosexuality and relationship to Tolson (Armie Hammer). It would have been far more interesting merely to hint at and suggest a relationship deeper than a professional partnership. But from the moment Tolson makes Hoover promise never to miss a lunch or a dinner together no matter what happens at the office, it’s clear how explicit the film will be. But Black doesn’t bother exploring what Hoover’s sexual orientation says about him as a man in a traditionally macho profession or what we should think about his decisions. There’s a sense that his repression of who he was inside stunted his emotional growth and there’s one very good scene with Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother in which she relates a cold tale illustrating why she won’t accept a “daffodil” for a son. Other scenes with his mother show Hoover as subservient to, reverent of, and doting on her. This helps explain part of his remaining in the closet for life, but it’s hardly enough.

The only real subtlety admitted involves Hoover’s long time secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). She rebuffs his early courtship of her, insisting that she is not interested in family but only in her career. The suggestion might be that she too is homosexual and perhaps that’s why Hoover trusts her completely with his secret files which, according to this film, include evidence of Eleanor Roosevelt’s collusion with subversives and engaging in lesbian relationship, JFK cavorting with other women, and MLK having an extra-marital affair. The veracity of these claims is dubious and a late scene in which Tolson accuses Hoover of fabricating details of his life and career doesn’t serve to wipe the slate clean. The damage is done on the audience. Besides, the structure of the film leaves it unclear which parts are being presented by the filmmakers and which are being told by Hoover, the unreliable narrator.

The film is not structured linearly, but instead unfolds as a series of flashbacks and reminiscences of Hoover’s life as he dictates his memoir to a series of changing FBI agents. A structure like this could have been effective in building drama and tension by drawing relationships between his earlier and later life and career. Unfortunately it’s assembled into a disorderly mess that leaves the viewer disoriented and occasionally confused about sequencing.

One of the few markers to indicate the time period is the garish age makeup applied to DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts. The prosthetics and pancake look as plastic and unreal as the work done in Back to the Future II. Then as if to confirm that fact, Lea Thompson shows up in a single-scene cameo. The aging process doesn’t wear well on DiCaprio and Hammer, highlighting how horribly miscast they both are. DiCaprio never seems to settle into either Hoover’s mind or the weight of his portly middle-aged body. It’s a far cry from the way he inhabited Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Hammer is unconvincing as the older Tolson. As a young actor he hasn’t mastered the movements of an elderly man, a subtlety of movement almost impossible to fake. Hammer’s performance overall is poor. His acting reaches its nadir along with the film in an overwrought confrontation between Hoover and Tolson over the state of their relationship as lovers. The acting, the writing and the staging of this scene are so bad I think I laughed out loud.

There’s hardly anything other than Judi Dench’s reliably great performance to save J. Edgar – not  yet another of Eastwood’s plaintive and melancholic scores, not the washed-out look he gives all his films these days, and certainly not the caricatured depictions of Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon, whose appearance near the end of the film just about sinks the whole thing. They provide the whole film a kind of cartoonish quality that leaves us just as informed but perhaps a little more dumbfounded about Hoover’s life than we were before we stepped into the theater.

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