Wednesday, November 09, 2011

J Edgar: Facing His Own Past, A Legend Creates a Man

J. Edgar
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts, Jeffrey Donavan, Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, and Christopher Shyer
Director of Photography: Tom Stern, Editors: Joel Cox and Gary Roach, Production Designer: James J. Murakami, Original Score: Clint Eastwood
Rated: R for occasional language

            Midway through J. Edgar, a stodgy yet occasionally exciting biopic from Clint Eastwood, the titular legend asks a number of young men, “Who is the famous person of the first half of the 20thcentury?” Of course, we know the name he is searching for: himself. And who can blame John Edgar Hoover for thinking of himself as such a figure? Serving under eight presidents, creating one of the most recognizable organizations in America, and modernizing police enforcement (legally and illegally), Hoover is a figure that I’ve heard many people generations older than me speak with disdain and hate.

            And yet, Mr. Eastwood, working from a screenplay from Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, has made something of a psychological portrait of a man where his personal feelings became his politics. It’s certainly a messy film, attempting to capture over fifty years of history in just over two hours, and Mr. Black has chosen what appears on surface arbitrarily which events to reproduce from the life. But like Mr. Eastwood’s great works, it’s a film that is essentially about the American myth, and about one’s man obsession with trying to preserve history the way he desires, while burying the parts of his past he hates. After the largely bland Invictus and Hereafter, it is Mr. Eastwood's most personal film in some time, quite a statement for a film that takes on such a daunting subject.

            Playing a figure like J. Edgar Hoover is the type that can often be embarrassingly cheesy (and the figures playing Nixon and RFK in this film aren’t exactly stellar), but Mr. Eastwood has intelligently chosen superstar Leonardo DiCaprio to fill the shoes. Unlike other movie stars, Mr. DiCaprio has evolved into an actor without type, making him slip into the role quite easily. J. Edgar flips back and forth in time, as the figure recalls his life to a biographer, and we see events both for the record as well as off. We watch young Mr. Hoover, taking over the Bureau of Investigation at the age of 24, turning it from an inept police club into force to be reckoned with. Fueled by communist paranoia and an overbearing, homophobic mother (Judi Dench), Mr. Hoover becomes increasingly obsessed with image more than politics, mixing the two together. He breaks the law to for the good of the country, and takes no prisoners when it comes to who he spies on. The film dives both into known facts as well as rumors, mixing the two like an ugly cake.

            Mr. Black, one of the most outspoken LBGTQ screenwriters in the business, of course dives into the question of Hoover’s sexuality, most notably his friendship with his #2 man, Clyde Tolson. Played by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer, Tolson is tall, slender, and carries a bright smile. He's just a patriotic as Hoover himself, but what drives him remains an enigma to Hoover at first. The two become close quickly—perhaps too close for a world where they constantly must defend their public image. Hoover remarks early on that women distract from the job, something which Tolson quite agrees (Hoover’s only woman comes in the form of his lifelong secretary, played somewhat thanklessly by Naomi Watts). 

            One would perhaps wish, however, that a less restrained filmmaker would take on such a figure of pioneering and highly controversial history and go all out on both the good and bad of Hoover's life. Mr. Eastwood brings his usual style here—Tom Stern’s very gray and shadowy lighting style, the occasional piano score (written by Mr. Eastwood himself), and a languid pace that allows the film to breathe in its period setting. And as much as Mr. Black’s script plays with Hoover’s sexuality, the film is mostly restrained in really attacking the man’s more controversial moments in history, and not much of it comes as a surprise. One really could guess what someone like Oliver Stone would do with this material (though legendary B-filmmaker Larry Cohen already did so with 1978’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover).

            Yet it is simply not the texture that Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Black gravitate toward, and Mr. Eastwood has always been more interested in the American psyche, and figures who takes laws and make them their own. Playing with both the personal and the public, Mr. Eastwood transforms Hoover by not showing just his personal life, but showing how those moments of his personal life transformed his public life. 

Mr. DiCaprio plays this balance quite skillfully. Brandishing a southern accent quite capably, the superstar allows himself to play up the Hoover-sims in the public moments, while capturing a more restrained version when he’s outside of the cameras. Even in the scenes set in the 1960s, the amazing makeup detail (less believable on Mr. Hammer, sadly) allow Mr. DiCaprio to create a figure of constant paranoia as well as image-making. It’s the actor’s ability to play on this constant duality that helps J. Edgar overcome its clunky script, which often pontificates Hoover-isms to fill in moments better treated with silence.

Who was J. Edgar Hoover? And what of those private files he guarded so closely, knowing the deep inner secrets of each man around him? If J. Edgar isn’t exactly a perfect film, the film’s textures and themes—investigating a man obsessed with the idea of himself—elevate it to something of a different nature. Mr. Eastwood’s usual stylistic restraint perhaps holds J. Edgar from truly exploding off the screen, but the reserved style lets Mr. DiCaprio fill in the details. As Nixon announces to the world Hoover’s death near the end of the film, it becomes apparent that J. Edgar is not exactly sure what to make of its titular figure, and better for it. Here was a man who had no idea who he was himself, but became obsessed with making sure one persona ruled America with an iron fist.

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