Sunday, November 13, 2011

Solid Weight: J. Edgar

There was a time in this country – and, sadly, some people are still living in it – when homosexuality was considered a character flaw. Thankfully society is more enlightened now, but that enlightenment does no favors for Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. Based on a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood’s film looks at and beyond the professional career of the longtime FBI director to find a man hiding his extra-professional feelings for his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, not just from the outside world but, in large part, from Tolson and even himself. It’s impossible not to feel sympathy for someone forced to suffer such a repressed emotional existence, especially when his mother tells him – with unblinking awareness – that she’d rather have a dead son than a gay one. And therein lies the problem. One of America’s most notorious figures – a man who enforced the law according to his own prejudices and by circumventing the law whenever it suited him – J. Edgar Hoover is a man many believe deserves no sympathy.

That’s understandable. But then so is Eastwood’s desire to investigate and articulate the man beyond the legend. Alas, as much as we profess to yearn for complex characters on the big screen, whenever a movie gets made about a controversial subject it reveals our fondness for the unambiguousness of black and white. Whether the subject is Hitler or Hoover, when a certain amount of recent historical evil is involved, we tend to get uncomfortable with nuance. Of course, if we’re honest about it, the nuance remains. To absolve or justify the extreme sins of such characters would be reprehensible, but to pretend such complexities don’t exist, simply because they don’t fit the familiar historical caricature, is to avoid facing the truth. So even if someone such as Hoover or Hitler – or Che or Cheney, or Jerry Sandusky – doesn’t deserve to be humanized, what the audience deserves is to be treated like discerning adults who, at our most complex, can respect the intricacies of a monster without losing sight of their monstrousness.

Eastwood’s film can be criticized for not portraying Hoover’s villainy to its fullest (an impossibility, but never mind) and for allowing the examination of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson, a substantial portion of the film, to become a sloppy melodrama. But this isn’t a whitewash. Not even close. In scene after scene, we see not only that Hoover was a conniving, blackmailing, power-hungry, son-of-a-bitch who obeyed no one other than his mother (not even presidents) and lashed out at anyone in close proximity when he didn’t get his way, we see also that he was all these things for decades. J. Edgar might lack depth of examination but certainly not breadth. Half of the film unfolds in the months before Hoover’s death, as he dictates his memoirs to a series of handsome male aides who are dismissed the moment they fail to meet Hoover’s unreasonable standards, and the rest unfolds in flashbacks chronicling Hoover’s ascension and reign. The passage of time is portrayed most obviously through the application of heavy makeup on the film’s three main characters (more on this in a bit) and through references to historical events (the Lindberg kidnapping and gangster wars of the ‘30s, the John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King espionage of the ‘60s, etc.), but it’s conveyed most ingeniously in the recurring scene in which Hoover waits calmly outside the Oval Office to meet the new president – he worked with eight of them, six as director – a manila folder on his lap containing enough blackmail material to make it clear that he was the tail that wagged the dog.

Eastwood suggests the massiveness of Hoover’s villainy in much the same way. In one of the film’s best scenes, a younger Hoover gives instructions to a select number of agents who will be charged with mining the private lives of whomever gets under Hoover’s skin. As Hoover describes this new operation, an empty filing cabinet, which will hold whatever dirty little secrets the agents find, is rolled into place. And then another filing cabinet is rolled in. And then another. And another. Although far from a complete summary of Hoover’s nefariousness, it’s a succinct and powerful indication of his intent and ambition. And as the rest of the film makes clear, with Hoover intent and outcome were never far apart. Can’t supply arms to his agents? Hoover gives them away as gifts. Not involved in the arrest of America’s most wanted criminal? Nothing a photo-op can’t fix. Lose a bet at the races? The track covers the loss. Hoover almost always got his way, and that, as much as anything, is what makes his relationship with Tolson worth observing. Because even though J. Edgar suggests that Hoover and Tolson shared a great deal of trust, affection and understanding, there remained between them an abyss – physical and emotional – that Hoover was never able to cross.

Playing Hoover throughout the film is Leonardo DiCaprio in one of the least flashy but most impressive performances of his career. Young or old, his Hoover is imposing and forceful. DiCaprio has always brought great intensity to his roles, but even as he creeps toward 40 he’s had trouble overcoming the youthful squeak of his voice and his boyish good looks. Not here. A few times in the film Hoover is told that his expanding midsection is “solid weight,” and that’s precisely what DiCaprio’s performance has. He spends all of the film flashing shifty brown eyes that suggest an empty soul and at least half of the film under heavy makeup; he wears both well. The makeup used for the elder Hoover is some of the most lived-in and evocatively convincing since Orson Welles played Charles Foster Kane (similarities of the cinematic narratives don’t hurt the comparison). The makeup used to age Hoover’s longtime secretary Helen Gandy (a wasted Naomi Watts) and Tolson, however? Not so much. The elder Tolson is maybe the least convincing makeup job I can remember since Biff waxed George McFly’s car at the end of Back to the Future, and Armie Hammer doesn’t help matters by failing to hide his youthful coordination. After Tolson suffers a stroke toward the end of the film, Hammer plays him with the extreme facial ticks of someone who has just inhaled a handful of pepper and is trying not to sneeze.

Such miscues distract from the film’s otherwise engaging tone, and J. Edgar can’t avoid several of the traditional biopic pitfalls, such as vast oversimplification (suggesting Hoover conceived and set up the entire card catalog system at the Library of Congress) and an unwillingness to let go (do we really need to watch these characters die to keep from thinking they’re still alive?). But even with its faults this is the most watchable and rewarding Eastwood film since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima (admittedly, the bar is low). And as painfully melodramatic as the film’s conclusion is, what with Eastwood’s familiar feather-light piano heavy-handedly applying the mood, it’s also telling. (Spoilers ahead) As Tolson wanders into Hoover’s bedroom in search of his deceased beloved, he gazes around the overly adorned space like someone getting his first peek at Xanadu, and it becomes clear that even Tolson never made it to Hoover’s inner sanctum. Tolson finds Hoover on the floor, shirtless, overweight and very much alone. It’s an ordinary death for an extraordinary man. Notice I didn’t say great.


Sam Juliano said...

Hoover is certainly a fascinating character, and you certainly (as always) present a reasoned and thorough alternate case against the tidal wave of negative criticism.

I found the film poorly focused, episodic, unable to probe beneath the surface to impart some more telling psychology into Hoover the Man, and lamentable use of make-up and a dull Eastwood score, derivative in its simplicity from his his previous work, and interminable length that in this case seemed to work against narrative cohesion.

I absolutely agree with you that aside from the make-up Di Caprio delivers one of his finest performances, and there is some fine period suthenticity. Eastwoods' handling of Hoover's sexuality is conservative as expected, but th eimplications are well enough conveyed.eis

The Film Doctor said...

Thanks for the link, Jason. Your review is measured and generous. J. Edgar left me stunned by its allusions to Citizen Kane. As I looked around the elderly populace of the theater, I wondered if this film heralds some new kind of geriatric genre, the revenge of the bureaucrat? Sam mentioned that Hoover was a fascinating character, but the movie had the effect of making him seem ordinary and predictable. I still like to think that the actual J. Edgar had more sides than Eastwood and DiCaprio felt obliged to show.

Richard Bellamy said...

I love your reference here to J. Edgar's room in the death scene as Xanadu. That says a lot about the character and his secret life. The scene is nicely shot as the camera moves through the exotic furnishings in his bedroom. Other scenes could have benefitted from the same care and atmosphere.

Good analysis here though I think DiCaprio's old-age makeup was poor, not as poor as Hammer's, but poor. In the 1930 actors playing Emile Zola or whatever were done up with wrinkles and gray hair and you knew they were old because they acted old - like Orson Welles in Citizen Kane - and we have imaginations. In this film, the layers of putty were ridiculous.

Jason Bellamy said...

I haven't even written my first response, and I'm already detecting a theme.

Sam: I found the film poorly focused, episodic, unable to probe beneath the surface to impart some more telling psychology into Hoover the Man, and lamentable use of make-up and a dull Eastwood score, derivative in its simplicity from his his previous work, and interminable length that in this case seemed to work against narrative cohesion.

This is one of those films where I can look at that assessment and say, yep, sounds about right, even as I enjoyed it and found much to admire.

The tricky thing, I think, is the "telling psychology of Hoover the Man." On the one hand, I agree with you: it seems to boil the guy down to some mommy and closeting issues. On the other hand, Kane was boiled down to a guy with sled issues. That's oversimplifying, I admit, but my point is this: Hoover, like Kane, comes off as a guy who was thoroughly unknowable, despite his omnipresence. Maybe the Kane structure is better for this; it's told through the memories of friends who were close but not close enough. Still, I get the same feeling with the approach to Hoover here.

Jason Bellamy said...

Doc: ...the movie had the effect of making him seem ordinary and predictable...

Building off my reply to Sam, that's kind of what I like about Hoover. I kind of like the idea that this extraordinary man had issues that on the one hand were very simple but on the other hand totally controlled him, probably because he never learned how to be without control. I won't argue, of course, that the movie couldn't have found greater depth; of course it could have. But the allusions to Citizen Kane enhanced the picture, if anything; they were both very public and very closeted men, in their own ways.

Jason Bellamy said...

In this film, the layers of putty were ridiculous.

In the case of DiCaprio, whose makeup I think is rather excellent, I think the obstacle is that we know it's DiCaprio under there. I think his makeup would definitely pass the glance test if you showed a clip to someone who didn't know the actor underneath. I can't say the same thing of the other makeup.

I've always said that one of the cruelest things to do to an actor is to make him/her get under lots of makeup and play old. And this is especially true if one character gets the makeup treatment while the other is played by multiple actors (The Reader, for example). But in this case I love the all-in approach. I love that they lead with the elder Hoover as if to say: look, this is how DiCaprio looks under all this makeup, and you're going to see him that way a lot, and you're going to have to just go with it.

jake said...

Gah, I was on the fence with even seeing this movie - love DiCaprio's work and am compelled by the subject matter, but have been bored with Eastwood's last few and am generally not a fan of make-up being used to significantly age actors - and this great review (not to mention the equally great comments) has not helped me decide whether or not I should see this.

A curiosity about Hoover in general makes me want to go, but I wonder if reading a book about him might be a better option.

Thanks as always for your insight, Jason.

Anonymous said...

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