Sunday, November 20, 2011

Love (Just Enough): J. Edgar

For as much Oscar-buzz as it garnered prior to its release, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar has largely fallen flat with critics and audiences alike.  We are both surprised and not at all surprised.  This was predictable and yet also unpredictable. There are many things that this film is and many things the film is not.  All of them seem to point in the direction of paradox, a mix of the good with the bad that winds up more a confusing mess of impressions instead of a straight-forward narrative.  It is, for example, a 2.5 hour meandering epic about an unlikable, problematic historical figure which asks us to both judge and empathize.  It's handsome and ugly, mixing Eastwood's now trademark silvered grayscale with liver spotted old age make-up that is in turns impressive and creepily waxy.  It is a political life but it is not especially political.  It's a portrait of a gay figure who is eternally closeted.  It is a wide-open book of stories but it is not one that reveals very much, or forms a significant larger picture.  It feels both passively expounded upon and spectacularly closed.  It's empty and drifting and rich and filled to the brim with questions and psychological inquiries and statements on society's norms and the rigid expectations of a life lived in public.
In places, J. Edgar seems confused, its flaws are many and the payoff is minimal: what's the mechanism here?  Were they or weren't they?  Why is this scene included?  Why play the story in flashbacks when the present is so uninteresting?  Is Dustin Lance Black actually only going to write scripts about gay historical figures? Is there no other way to write a fussy, impossible character than to emulate Citizen Kane?  Can we see now that perhaps Milk was primarily made successful by its actors?  Did the cast and crew reach a point at which they decided to fill in the blanks by using a past Leonardo DiCaprio success (The Aviator) as a playbook?  Why did we have to see Hoover meet Shirley Temple?  If he had a niece, where were his siblings?  Why didn't we write the story from the perspective of Hoover's confoundedly loyal secretary, Helen Gandy?  Why does the old man version of Armie Hammer look like a stone-eyed killer in a death mask swiped from Madame Tussuad's?
Still, there are successes in J. Edgar, and they're more noteworthy than most seem willing to let on.  For a drawn out tale on a difficult man, Eastwood has found a way for Hoover to charm us against his will.  The problem with a Hoover biopic is partially a problem with the the man himself.  Hoover lived his life in fictions and exaggerations.  His public image was one culled largely from imagined exploits, an amped up, megalomaniacal vision of a action and adventure.  Hoover was not present when Purvis killed Dillinger, he played a very small role in the physical capturing of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapper, yet he's quick to paint himself as responsible for both.  The real Hoover was a man of great accomplishments.  He revolutionized modern forensics and laid much of the groundwork for the FBI.  The real Hoover was also a damaged, hesitant man who lived under the shadow of a dominant mother (Judi Dench) who announces, at one point, that she'd rather have a dead son than a gay one.  Eastwood finds Hoover torn between worlds and social norms.  We understand that it's impossible for him to trust anyone but a mere handful of living, breathing, human beings because in some ways, unfortunately, everything he's built is on the line.  He's a man of secrets; who keeps files filled with the dirty bits of the lives of others and spends all of his time protecting himself.  He's brittle, fickle, and speaks in long strings of barked dialogue peppered with stuttering fits.  DiCaprio is excellent.  Even beneath the now controversial make-up, he finds the humanity in J. Edgar, the depth of his loneliness.  Still, we don't know Hoover's reality.  The film succeeds in opening up a discussion, but fails to provide any depth of insight.  J. Edgar is a handsome bit of filmmaking, and occasionally an interesting one with a performance teetering on the bring of greatness.  As great as the individual parts are, however, the film only ever aspires to adequacy.  


  1. I feel like there are 2 kinds of Clint Eastwood movies: the personal masterpieces (Mystic River, Unfogiven, Million Dollar Baby, etc) and then the historical ones which are not as involving or moving but still made with no less skill and craft such as this one, Invictus, Changeling etc, that get unfairly panned just because they aren't as good as the personal ones.

  2. I feel like you're definitely on to something. Of the ones you listed, Changeling felt more personal to me, but there's a definite skewing that happens between the 'historical' and 'personal' dramas which may be unfair.

    There are a lot of ways in which J.Edgar is a tremendously solid film, and I was very impressed with DiCaprio's performance here. Hopefully, it didn't seem as though I were really digging into the film. In a less impressive year it might rank quite a bit higher. This year, though, something about it falls flat.

    Also, I have to ask: did anyone else have a really hard time caring (at all) about Hereafter?


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