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Thread: J. EDGAR (Clint Eastwood 2011)

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    J. EDGAR (Clint Eastwood 2011)

    Clint Eastwood: J. EDGAR (2011)
    Review by Chris Knipp


    ARMIE HAMMER AND LEONARDO DICAPRIO HAVE THE BIG FIGHT IN J. EDGAR

    Open hate, repressed love

    At the end of Clint Eastwood's biopic about J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an aged Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) labors into a dark bedroom full of curios and then slumps down and weeps over the swollen white albatross of a body. It's his longtime companion, the paranoid, dictatorial founder and ruling monarch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who up to now has been in every frame, and dominates the screen even as a carcass. Dustin Lance Black, the gay writer who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gus Van Sant's Milk, tells the story his way. This movie has all the stuff about Hoover's struggle to make the FBI strong and independent (to put it mildly). But the overriding theme is a sad, repressed love story -- a love whose name Tolson dares speak, but J. Edgar can only whisper. When J. Edgar speaks of marrying a woman and Clyde freaks out, it's their only big emotional scene, but it's intense, and it may be enough.

    The repressed love is the message, but Black doesn't overstate it, and Eastwood can be counted on not to. Still, it's the interest of a movie that's otherwise weighed down by the worst machinery of biopics. The tale is encased in the laborious device of an autobiography undertaken by Hoover in his later years--his self-aggrandizing version of his career achievements, which Clyde reveals at the end to be full of lies and distortions. As a result DiCaprio spends a lot of the picture, from first to last, buried in heavy makeup (which toward the end Hammer also must don) dictating his story as the scenes shift back and forth in time. Naomi Watts gamely labors through the thankless role of Hoover's lifelong personal secretary, Helen Gundy, who's credited with destroying the Director's personal files at his death before Nixon's men can come in and grab them. "That old cocksucker!" Nixon (Christopher Shyer, not the least Nixon-like) exclaims when he learns Hoover's gone. This is a story of repression. Most of the time J. Edgar and Clyde can allow themselves nothing more than an affectionate touch of the hand. Back and forth the story goes. And the suspicion is that beyond the repressed, ritualistic love affair, the real excitement was the Bureau's collective exploits, in which J. Edgar was often not physically involved.

    With Clyde, Edgar explores his gay side, getting beautiful slick-looking suits like Clyde's at Julius Garfinckel's posh DC department store. They must have had a good time back then, dining out all the time, looking natty. The two men are both stylish and fresh-faced. Armie Hammer is tall and handsome. His eyes and teeth gleam. He's the gay man's perfect trophy husband. As the young Hoover, DiCaprio is in good point, sleek-faced and shiny-haired. They share a bit of gay camp, mocking other people's bad taste and frumpy clothes.

    Though the film doesn't make as much of this as it could, this is a man who lives by manipulating the secrets of others who himself harbors a terrible secret, his homosexuality. And he has so many worries. The FBI begins as an outlier body, denied the right to search without warrant, to wiretap, even to carry arms. Hoover begins with the Twenties war on communists, involved in the Palmer Raids aimed at deporting them, beating down the likes of Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). But when the red-baiting McCarthy arrives, he doesn't like him. He is brutal and arbitrary in hiring and firing. He doesn't like or trust anybody but Clyde and Miss Gundy. He hates every president, all eight of them from Hoover to Nixon, coveting their power. He keeps a file on Eleanor Roosevelt. He and Clyde cluck with glee when they find she may have a lesbian lover. He blackmails the Kennedys.

    A quiet but continuous theme is Hoover's close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived till her death; Clyde maintained a separate residence. As discreetly played by Judy Dench, Annie Hoover is a little mysterious. She'd rather her son be dead than a "daffodil," but the relationship doesn't seem particularly neurotic, just subservient.

    A key moment for the country and the FBI is the Lindbergh kidnapping. Often Hoover is humiliated and abused on his way to absolute power, and he is pushed away by the New Jersey police looking for the Lindberghs' baby boy. But though he can't save the child, his investigatory methods -- his championing of the use of forensic science and fingerprinting files is there from the start -- lead to the capture and conviction of the kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Damon Herriman), which H.L. Mencken called "the biggest story since the Resurrection." Despite this victory, and the extra powers that came with it, Hoover is harangued before a Congressional committee as unqualified for his job. How much he was hated and resented, and all the wrongdoing he was accused of, are aspects of the life that are underplayed because the movie lets the man tell most of his own story in voiceover. This both humanizes and ironizes him, but doesn't it dull down the tale?

    Black gives us a narrative maze, diving back and forth between different layers of makeup and weaving a delirium of chronologies in the hope of numbing our pesky suspicion that the story of the bureaucracy is more exciting than the story of the man. We certainly aren't going to like him: DiCaprio deserves credit for taking on someone even more unappealing than the crazy but glamorous Howard Hughes. This is penance. And it's hard work. The accents aren't any more convincing than the makeup (though he's still a haunting presence). Leo sounds like Nixon. Would he play McCarthy? He's got the bull neck now. But there's hope for more fun next. Word is, he'll soon be seen as Jay Gatsby, and after that probably Frank Sinatra. So thankfully, party time is coming. And in those roles, he'll be a guy who knows how to dance.

    J. Edgar was released November 9 and 11, 2011 in the US; January 20, 2012 in the UK. Screened for this review November 12, 2011 at Rialto Cinemas™ Cerrito, El Cerrito, CA.

    Last edited by Chris Knipp; 11-12-2011 at 11:47 PM.

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    This is probably one of the best reviews of yours I've ever read. Kudos. That said, you did not mention Eastwood very much but chose to focus on the screenwriter. I would agree that the storytelling starts with the writer. However, in film you have so much more in this collaborative artform that comes from the director. I would have liked to hear what you thought of Eastwood's style of directing, since you also reviewed "Letters from Iwo Jima" (2006), "Mystic River" and other Eastwood offerings. Also, you glossed over DiCaprio's performance. Is this his year? Is the Oscar buzz correct? I haven't seen the film yet, but intend to see it soon.
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    Thanks. You are right -- I slighted Eastwood's directing. I really think the screenplay, though not wholly successful, is much more interesting than the direction. If I find any good quotes on the direction of the film I might add them to this thread.

    I did say a few things about DiCaprio -- he is a strong, haunting presence but he is buried under the makeup and prosthetics much of the time. His accent, a mixture of New York and Boston, as has been remarked by others, is not convincing or successful. He has been held back by a grating, too light voice -- less so here -- and seems not good at accents, though he may have done a pretty good job in Blood Diamond. He has an unconvincing (and similar) accent in Shutter Island. This is not to say DiCaprio isn't one of the most gifted and risk-taking actors in recent film history. All his early films established that, Gilbert Grape (astonishing), Basketball Diaries, Total Eclipse, Romeo and Juliet (bold and daring), Marvin's Room (heartrending), Titanic (romantic, star-making), and he has judiciously managed his career. I wouldn't think of this as one of his great performances but you never know about the Oscars.

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    Here's one. I very smart review, from a quick look at it, by a new writer on a site I like to consult (mostly for main writer Walter Chaw's knowing rants). Note this is how the review begins and it moves on to a discussion mostly of the screenplay and the acting, with compliments to Armie Hammer (whom I'd give an award to before I'd give one to Leo, this time).

    To say that latter-day Clint Eastwood is an acquired taste seems slightly inaccurate, in that it implies a certain consistency on both the filmmaker's and the viewer's part: while even Invictus and the "Touched by an Angel" outtake Hereafter have their fans, you don't find many of them championing, say, the delirious Europop ballads that punctuate the former. ("And it's not just a game/They can't throw me away/I put all I had on the line," sings a mysterious crooner whose song is played in toto as Mandela descends his helicopter and paces the rugby field.) So let's propose instead that the master of sepia's recent output has been rather like a series of inkblots, in which perfectly smart people have seen completely different things. Some, for instance, find much to admire in the simultaneously milquetoast and monstrous Million Dollar Baby, which I've always read as Eastwood's last laugh at disability-rights activists for a failed lawsuit involving an inaccessible inn he ran years prior; others dismiss Gran Torino, his most watchable film since Unforgiven, as a rare spot of trash. All of this is to say, rather sheepishly, that I kind of liked fusty old J. Edgar, even as I recognized it as a train-wreck throughout. People have been very kind to Eastwood in this restless period, calling his choice of projects as disparate as Changeling and Letters from Iwo Jima "varied," but it's only with J. Edgar that I've understood their spirit of generosity: It's such a chameleonic grab-bag of ideas, good and bad, that some of it can't help but appeal, regardless of whether the entire thing works. (It doesn't.)

    Both the film's problems and its perks stem from Dustin Lance Black's bewildering screenplay.
    -- Angelo Muredda in Film Freak Central. There are some notes on Eastwood's direction in the rest of the review, which I recommend reading, because it pillories the historical-review aspects of the film in a devastatingly accurate way.

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