Saturday, November 19, 2011

J. Edgar

J. Edgar is a great rumbling contraption of a movie, one that can't help but take a scattershot approach to its subject's life and to the amount of influence that J. Edgar Hoover had over the middle 50 years of the 20th century. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar at once aspires to be a recasting of our idea of Hoover through the lens of modern ideas on sexuality and a sort of counter-history of the 1960's. The familiar faces are there, including Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) and Martin Luther King, Jr., but in Eastwood's telling Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was always one temper tantrum away from using his secret files to destroy the reputation of this President or that civil rights leader. It may be too much to expect a movie that covers such a span of years to have much tension or to overly concern itself with pace, but J. Edgar doesn't do itself any favors by doubling back on itself so often. The elderly Hoover dictates his memoirs to a serious of handsome young agents in the 1960's (Ed Westwick of Gossip Girl plays one of the agents in a strange bit of casting.); these scenes alternate with the rise of the younger Hoover from anti-Communist firebrand to the first director of an agency that badly needed to have its procedures and membership reformed. As Hoover and the Bureau gain power in Washington the movie also develops Hoover's need for power and importance. Much is made of Hoover's involvement (or lack thereof) in the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case, and Eastwood and Black give Hoover full credit for bringing then-new methods of scientific detection into the Bureau's arsenal. DiCaprio gives the younger Hoover a great brashness, crossed with a strong dose of moral rectitude imbued in him by his controlling mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench).

Eastwood loses his way when he turns to Hoover's personal life, which in the early scenes feels like a Tennesse Williams play complete with crazy father, niece around for no apparent reason, and a mother rhapsodizing about the past. It's nurture not nature in the film's conception; Hoover makes an awkward lunge at his future secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, overqualified) but it's hard to imagine another woman in his life after we've met his mother. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) shows up as Hoover begins to recruit agents for his new Bureau. There's nothing lurid or sensational in the way J. Edgar puts Hoover and Tolson in a chaste marriage; Tolson succeeds in loosening Hoover up a little in private and only bucks when Hoover makes noise about marrying a woman. The two's big fight scene is one of the worst in the film,with Hammer playing a jealous Tolson more like a petulant Winklevoss brother than a career law enforcement agent. It's to Dustin Lance Black's credit that Hoover and Tolson aren't pioneers, they don't understand their feelings in the same way Harvey Milk did. That said, pinning Hoover's anti-Communist fanaticism on his own repression feels like a judgment and doesn't add much to our understanding of the man. Hoover is a smaller man in the 1960's scenes, obsessed with the sex lives of JFK and King and unwilling to accept the fact that domestic Communism was no longer a serious threat. The makeup used to age DiCaprio and Hammer is impressive in its own right I suppose, but we're always aware of the artifice and the extra layers take some power away from a late tender moment between Hoover and Tolson. J. Edgar finally suffers from the collision between Eastwood, Black, and the subject matter. Hoover's sexuality receives a sympathetic airing but the mores of the day precluded emotional honesty, while Eastwood has no feel for the 1960's scenes of Hoover's late career. We're always in Hoover's controlled world, and there's no sense of the social upheaval he was so disturbed by. All of this subtraction doesn't leave much to work with, and maybe that's why the movie has so little emotional weight. J. Edgar needed filmmakers who were willing to be more offhand, to put Hoover in context amid the times he lived in. The man at the movie's center might be uncrackable, but a director willing to open up the movie's world might have succeeded in giving us the J. Edgar we deserve.

No comments: