Wednesday, December 14, 2011

One last flick before the ball drops

Where does the time go?  It’s been shamelessly long since the last review post.   Trouble finding a buddy to write with me, bled into busyness, and, well, like sands through the hourglass… Very happy to be back for this one with my brother, who previously joined me forThe Beginners.  Enjoy.    

Mike's Review of J. Edgar

As a young actor, Clint Eastwood got famous for his performances as archetypes of violent American masculinity, a cowboy (in Leone’s spaghetti Westerns of the 60s) and a vigilante cop (in the Dirty Harry films of the 70s). But in the latter half of his career, both in front of the camera and in the director’s chair, Eastwood has aggressively deconstructed such archetypes, in revisionist versions of the western (Unforgiven, 2002), the boxing picture (Million Dollar Baby, 2004) and the war movie (Flags of Our Fathers, 2006).  This project of critical revisitings continues in his latest effort, J. Edgar,  a  history and politics biopic in which Leonard DiCaprio plays the founder of the FBI.  

J. Edgar Hoover is an ideal subject for exploring the issues Eastwood has focused on in his recent films—power and violence; history and myth-making; men and masculinity.  For one thing, although Hoover biographers disagree on this point, rumour has long had it that he was a closeted gay man.  The film portrays him as such, showing him at one point tell his mother (played admirably and subtly by Judy Dench) that he “doesn’t like dancing with women.”  His implicit attempt at coming out is cruelly contradicted—like his overbearing mother, whom he adores to a fault, Edgar tries to deny that he is gay, even to himself.  He may be in love (and this is another popular speculation about Hoover) with his associate FBI director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), with whom he takes two-man weekend getaways and lunches and dines every day, but he is too sexually self-hating to ever consummate this passion.  In one memorable scene, Tolson and Hoover come to blows in a hotel room when Tolson explodes in rage at Hoover’s denial of their desire for each other; in a moment reminiscent of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, the dust-up ends with Tolson pinning J. Edgar on the floor and forcefully giving him the kiss that they’ve both been aching for.  A kiss that Hoover right away, guiltily repudiates.

Despite (or perhaps as a result of) his own need for sexual secretiveness, Hoover avidly collected secret information on the sex lives of his Washington political rivals.  For instance, Eastwood shows him using  ingeniously obtained evidence of Eleanor Roosevelt’s alleged lesbianism and, later, tape-recorded proof of the philandering of both Martin Luther King and JFK in order to maintain his leverage in the endless games of tug-of-war between his Bureau and the successive Presidents and Attorneys General who would curtail it.  In J. Edgar these cat-and-mouse games of trying to hide or out sexual impropriety are one corollary of Hoover’s most valuable insight, which is the biggest reason for his staggering success: that politics is public relations.

Indeed, the film hammers home the notion that the original G-man was the consummate PR-man, stressing for example that Hoover worked hard and purposefully to replace the gangster with the FBI agent as the figure Americans looked up to in crime-themed movies and comic books.  Not to mention that he was constantly and carefully crafting his image in the press, trying to pass himself off as a frontier sheriff despite the fact he was essentially a Washington lawyer and bureaucrat.  Interestingly, one way in which he did this was by alerting the press in advance about major FBI arrests (of celebrity hoods like Machine Gun Kelly and John Dillinger, for example) and using them as photo opps at which he, in spite of his maladroitness with guns and handcuffs, would be seen to apprehend the bad guy.  There’s a real poignancy to this aspect of Hoover’s characterization in the film: mortally ashamed of being a sissy, he copes with that shame by creating a fantasy public persona for himself as punishing law enforcement cowboy.

The movie’s preoccupation with the constructedness of great Americans extends beyond Hoover’s attempts to manipulate pop culture and the press to his calculated efforts to influence the history books.  In fact, the narrative conceit that structures J. Edgar is that Hoover, in the 1960s twilight of his life and career, is dictating his professional memoirs to a series of young FBI agents.  (To digress, my favourite American writer Gore Vidal used the very same form of mise en abyme—aging American statesman dictates his memoirs to young male secretary—in another piece of eponymous fictionalized biography, his masterful 1973 novel Burr.)  As we might have expected, Hoover turns out to be anything but a reliable narrator.  Toward film’s end, Tolson exposes much of what his boss has told his amanuenses as self-serving embellishments and calculated lies, reminding us that the history of Hoover and the FBI, like all history, is made, not born.

All of this is well and good if, like me, you have an interest in 20th century U.S. history and the ways in which the political life of a country plays itself out in popular culture and the media.  But for someone who doesn’t find these issues engaging in themselves, J. Edgar is likely to be a disappointing movie.  For while it starts strong—DiCaprio is compelling as the young, feverishly ambitious Hoover, a strange mix of priggish unlikeability and strident charisma—it bogs down somewhere between the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Hoover’s petty attempts to discredit Martin Luther King with sex tapes.  And by the end, when we’ve been too long watching DiCaprio and Hammer trying gamely but implausibly, in heavy old-man makeup, to portray Hoover and Tolson late in life, the film—notwithstanding its thoughtful take on some important ideas—has lost its momentum as a story and its claim on our attention as the psychological portrait of a deeply conflicted creature.

Caitlin's Review of J. Edgar

Oh, Edgar
by Caitlin Murphy

Bio pics never work.  Not really.  Not fully.  I’m thinking it’s because they typically have much more to do with biography than film:  unable even to live up to their names, they’re doomed from the start.  Just as a film adaptation of a novel is always an adaption before it’s a film, a bio pic knows that its first duty is to the biographical subject, and second to the art of cinematic story-telling.  It’s an allegiance that’s impossible to avoid, and even less possible to hide.

J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood, and written by Dustin Lance Black, stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the founder and many-term director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.  The film also features Naomi Watts, in the initially promising (though ultimately rather thankless) role of secretary, Helen Gandy, Judi Dench (in a bit of under-considered casting), as Edgar’s mother, and Armie Hammer (that guy who was creepily cloned to play the twins in The Social Network) as Hoover’s long-time companion and second-in-command, Clyde Tolson.

Milk, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s previous film about Harvey Milk, won him an Oscar.  J. Edgar won’t.  Directed by Gus Van Sant, Milk was undoubtedly a much superior and more successful film.  Cynically, a life cut short by assassination is simply more dramatic, and also makes for a more manageable amount of material to cover.  But further, the people who made Milk were clearly as concerned about making a movie as delivering a biography; Milk more effectively evokes a place, and conveys an era, while simultaneously painting a portrait of a man; as a result, its world is far richer than the world of J. Edgar.

With so much ground to cover, bio pics notoriously rely on voice-over narration.    Finding the compelling context for this can of course be tricky:  how to drum up the occasion for someone to narrate their existence?  Here, Hoover recounts his memoirs to various amanuenses, and, as a framing device, it’s  rather limp.  Unlike in Milk, which found Harvey Milk speaking an eerily prescient “if I die” warning into a tape recorder, this device doesn’t put much at stake.  Sure, Hoover is clearly interested in laying down (his version of) the historical record, but that’s about it.  And the scenes themselves, with their revolving door of secretaries, lack vitality, nuance and conflict.

At 37 years old, DiCaprio spends most of the film playing out of his age range to cover the various periods of Hoover’s life addressed in the film.  Regardless of how amazing an actor is (and I don’t think DiCaprio is one of our strongest) aging is hard to play.  I think because basically, and perhaps mercifully, we don’t have much imagination for how we’ll age.  I was very prepared for wrinkles and fine lines, for example, not the general downward facial shifting I’ve witnessed instead.  Like most people I think, I have greeted signs of getting older with a rather bemused, “Oh, wasn’t expecting you, I thought the other guy was coming.”  

Here’s the thing:  if you’ve ever been to a college theatre production, you know what it is to feel badly for the 19 year old stuck playing the granddad.  No matter how good of a job the kid does, the role would always, of course, have been more convincingly played (and with considerably less effort) by an actually old person.  The problem with the college theatre production and with J. Edgar is this:  you feel like you’re watching a capital A Acting exercise, and, in the case of J. Edgar it all starts smelling like eau d’Oscar a little too quick.  Beyond a five-minute death-bed scene, the extraordinary advancements in cinema make-up quickly show their limits.  And acting cannot be measured by hours logged in the make-up chair, or efforts exerted ‘doing’ a voice.  

The most fascinating aspect of Hoover’s character, from what I could tell, was his gift for self-deception:  his affinity for exaggerating or changing the facts to suit a more appealing and heroic image of himself.  More so than his purported cross-dressing, mommy infatuation, or latent homosexuality, this was certainly his most intriguing and sympathetic side, and would have been a great peg for the film to more firmly hang its hat on.  Beyond this though, the heart of the story of J. Edgar, is of course Hoover’s heart, which is devoted, despite itself, to Tolson.  Unfortunately, the confrontation scene between the two men, when they finally acknowledge that what they share is called ‘love’, was so shamelessly overplayed that I had to wonder if Eastwood left the set for a coffee or briefly nodded off.   

Another area where Eastwood felt absent:   the many movements between past and present, which usually delight audiences with their clever ‘that was then, this is now’ editing.  They all fall pretty flat here.  One moment Edgar walks out onto his office balcony as a young man, and the next he walks back in from the balcony as the older Edgar (which sounds even more elegant than it was).  We’re naturally fascinated by before and after pictures, but if placed too far apart, they lose impact; there was basically a lack of finesse, or interest even, in inter-weaving the past and present.  

Along the way we of course get appearances by such famous figures as Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy, suitably played by actors hired based on their physical and vocal likenesses.  Impersonation has an odd effect; at the same time that it sucks you in, it simultaneously throws you out.  Ironically, you become even more aware of representation and performance and less able to immerse in story.  No matter how well done – often most because it is well done – impersonation has an alienating effect, which points to a larger issue with how we view historical treatments like J. Edgar.  The privileging of verisimilitude – protestations of ‘yeah, but he actually walked like that’ – doesn’t go very far in assessing whether dramatic story-telling works or not.  Often vaguely gesturing to reality conveys the truth better than slavishly serving it.  An audience reaction of “that guy doesn’t look much like Nixon, oh well, let’s move on…” is actually more useful than “Wow… that guy totally looks like Nixon, sounds like him even!  I wonder if he’ll stand up to my scrutiny.”

There are certainly some fun wink-wink history moments in the film though.  An early scene where Hoover shows off to Helen how he reorganized the library catalogue system and can find a book in under a minute is delightfully quaint to a generation of google-heads.  And the repeated dismissals of Hoover’s insistence on the use of fingerprinting and other forensic tools serve up some tasty dramatic irony. 

Ultimately, the average natural span of a human life simply does not squeeze very elegantly into the 2 ½ hour motion picture form.  What results can often feel like a series of vignettes; a meandering child’s narration, with events strung together with so many ‘and then what happeneds.’  J. Edgar doesn’t achieve much beyond this.  But it will at least make for one very happy make-up artist come Oscar night.