Eastwood's Animatronic Gossip

J. Edgar

on November 05, 2011 by James Rocchi

jedgarreview.pngFull of Oscar-season intentions, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar faces an uphill battle at the box office: young moviegoers have no clue who Hoover is or was, older audiences may be put off by Dustin Lance Black's non-linear screenplay and its fluid sense of time and place. There is already talk of Best Picture, Best Director and Best Actor nominations for the film, Eastwood and star Leonardo DiCapriohot air that will cool off during the films leviathan 137-minute running time. Eastwood's on-time and under-budget methods have always played better with aging critics and Academy insiders than they have with moviegoers (really, when people head to the movies, how often do they think "Gosh, I want to see something that was shot on-time and under-budget"?), but J. Edgar represents a low point no Eastwood aficionado can ignore.

It would be one thing if J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's bio-pic of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, were merely another Eastwood film shot in the cloudy, patent-medicine weak-tea sepia tones of a Ken Burns production, with its minor-key piano chords and historically appropriate pop songs. It would be another thing if J. Edgar were simply another Leonardo DiCaprio film where the starthrough makeup and miraclesportrays another complex American legend whose public persona was only the smallest part of his complex life, as the actor did in the Martin Scorsese-directed The Aviator. But between Eastwood's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay, what you feel leaking off the screen in every scene is missed opportunity. This material could have inspired a serious and artistic examination of the role of law and intelligence in America, of the toxic nature of secrets, or of how desperate times demand desperate measuresand make public servants into desperate (and dangerous) men. Instead, J. Edgar functions as a Wikipedia page dipped in makeup, an assemblage of half-truths, gossip, innuendo and the occasional historical fact, all drenched in latex and drained of color. It's the cinematic equivalent of the animatronic Lincoln at Disney's Hall of the Presidents: stiff, jerky, mechanical, fake.

Moving from Hoover's early days at the Bureau of Investigation-which was, in 1919, a part of the Justice Department with no funding, few police powers and not even the capability to make arrests or carry firearmsJ. Edgar follows Hoover's life all the way to the '70s, where he served under Nixon and died while still head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation as we know it today. The framing device is that Hoover, eager to set the record straightor, rather, straight by his standardsis dictating his memoirs to a succession of young agents over a timespan of decades. The irony, of course, is that Hoover's job demands projecting a public image, and public images demand private compromises. Hoover, it seems, didn't do the things he said he did, and did many things he never speaks of. But there are throwaway bits in James Ellroy's American Tabloid that say more about the real Hoover than all of Eastwood's purported life story here. Hoover was convinced organized crime was fiction in the '50swhich it was notand obsessed with finding communist agitators in the Civil Rights movement, motivated by pure racism. For 50 years, he had the power of warrantless wiretaps, relationships with the press, a fiction-fabricating media-machine and all of the force of the Federal Government. Eastwood's film and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay shove all these big (and currently relevant) questions aside for fluff. Their major concern: was Hoover really a closeted homosexual and occasional cross-dresser?

This gossip about what Hoover really had on under his flannel suits is decades old. The Mihtrokin Archive of stolen KGB documents suggest that the KGB had a role in spreading the Hoover-is-gay rumors in an attempt to undermine the man, while McCarthy aide Roy Cohn, himself a homosexual, has implied that Hoover was, at best, asexualafraid of sex and the attendant loss of control. Possibly true, moderately compelling. But even putting aside the question of if movies have to provide historical accuracynot the necessarily the case, as you can enjoy the vulgar melodrama of Anonymous while still recognizing Shakespeare's authorshipthe better question is if Eastwood and Black can make Hoover's purported homosexuality dramatically interesting. Enter Armie Hammer, who plays Hoover's right-hand man Clyde Tolson with a knowing wink and a sense of fun that comes perilously close to camp, while suggesting that (with the exception of two hand-holding sessions and one kiss) their relationship was completely non-sexual. Black's script for Milk was a masterpiece of sensitivity, honesty, and insight; his script for J. Edgar is, at best, Masterpiece Theater. Early on, a supporting character notes, "You know, the funny thing about adoration ... it leads to villainy." Thanks for the tip, as otherwise I'm sure we'd be too dense to figure the thematic notes of the material if we weren't given on-screen Cliff's Notes within the first five minutes.

The performances are all as good as they can be. DiCaprio's Hoover is a repressed martinet with extensive, expensive old-age makeup transforming him from a sleek, speedy young keener into an aging-but-still dangerous bear of a man. Judi Dench's work as his mother is a bundle of clichés wrapped in lace, Hammer provides the occasional much-needed spark of life and wit yet comes perilously close to Paul Lynde-levels of irony and self-mockery, and Naomi Watts suffers at length as Hoover's long-suffering personal secretary Ms. Gandy. The most exciting plot sub-themethe Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping, which Hoover helped solve only to use it as a springboard to gain new powers for himself and the Bureauis hurt by being cut up and interlaced with other material. (Would that this were its own film, by any other director.)

Like his anti-Apartheid soccer drama Invictus, J. Edgar is a look at history from a comfortable remove, when we can tut-tut over how bad things were while appreciate some fine old Hollywood stars . A great filmmaker would make a movie about racism in South Africa in the here-and-now, or about the FBI's warrantless wiretaps, ballooning budget and Keystone Cops errors in our current agebut those things would make the audience uncomfortable with the ugly facts of now. Better just to lull them to sleep with visions of Oscar-worthy performances dancing in their heads. Clint Eastwood is under no obligation to give audiences true history or social commentary worthy of our age, but he should try to give us something, anything other than rumor and urban legend, narcotic nostalgia and another limping, age-wearied steed cluttering the Oscar race.

Distributor: Warner Brothers
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer
Director: Clint Eastwood
Screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black
Producers: Clint Eastwood, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz
Genre: Drama
Rating: R for brief strong language
Running time: 137 min.
Release date: Nov. 9, 2011


Tags: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer, Clint Eastwood, Dustin Lance Black, Ron Howard, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz

read all Reviews »


  • Desmond from Seattle on 09 November 2011

    I'll see the film with an open mind after reading, now, five pre-release reviews ranging from strongly negative to strongly positive. But tell me why this reviewer writes, "older audiences may be put off by Dustin Lance Black's non-linear screenplay and its fluid sense of time and place." I am an older viewer (67) reared on the French nouvelle vague, Fellini, Bergman, and Tarkovsky, in addition to Hollywood films and, like many of my age cohort, not just open to nonlinear narrative but highly appreciative of it. My impression of younger audiences (which could be wrong) is that among them is where one will find strong resistance to complicated plot lines that cannot hold one's attention on a hand-held viewing device.

  • MarloDClif on 12 November 2011

    The audience buys what Hollywood gives them. If Hollywood could produce original thought provoking material and tenaciously execute it soundly, with intelligence..Then the young folk would desire complicated plot lines, Im sure. That is, I do not believe they know what they are missing for lack of experience and knowledge. Seeing, experiencing it with their own eyes.
    Thanks for the review! Finally some sober judgement in a review about this film! Also, I feel you ve done this tastefully as well. A film is hard to make. And I feel you respect this fact. Your honest but attempt to be so without the low brow. Ok, thank you for your thoughts

  • the bob on 24 November 2011

    A nonsense review.

  • Howard Schumann on 27 November 2011

    Anyone who thinks Anonymous is vulgar and that Shakespeare is the uneducated genius from Stratford does not inspire confidence in me about their ability to distinguish between myth and the truth.

    To find vulgar, read about Tudor history and the plays of Shakespeare. They both are filled with bastardy, incest, and betrayal. Better yet, read a book about the life of Edward de Vere and the case for his authorship and inform yourself. You might have to let go of your bowing to the entrenched academic establishment whose jobs and reputations are at stake in perpetuating the Stratford mythology.,

  • neilstargazer on 20 January 2012

    Invictus was about rugby union not soccer . Two completely different sports . If you didn't spot that watching Invictus how can anyone trust your review . With your observation skills the film could be about president Hoover or the makers of vacum cleaners?

  • dave cox on 27 January 2012

    I could not believe your reviewer does not know real FOOTBALL from RUGBY UNION

What do you think?