Wednesday, December 14, 2011
Caitlin's Review of J. 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.