Wednesday, December 14, 2011

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.

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