Monday, 23 January 2012

J. Edgar

2011. Dir: Clint Eastwood. Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench and Josh Lucas. ●●○○○

Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? Why? I have asked before and I will shout it from the rooftops if absolutely necessary. Biopics (much like any other film genre) must exist for a reason, you must decide whether you want to draw parallels with the human condition, or prescient societal factors, or you must seek to restore or destroy a reputation, alternative aim to explain your protagonists public actions through their private history. J. Edgar does none of these. Instead it throws events and personal relations onto the screen, with three distinct elements of the film all failing to relate with each other and therefore failing to relate with the greater context.

The first element of the film, and perhaps the most compelling, establishes, through the unreliable narrative of Hoover himself played sympathetically by Leonardo DiCaprio, the origin mythology of the FBI from it's beginnings in the anti trade union movement through the war against organised crime in the 1930's and the development of modern police procedural to catch and prosecute Bruno Hauptmann, the kipnapper of Charles Lindbergh jr. (notably dubbed the "crime of the century" at the time). This section celebrates J. Edgar as a nerdy modernist standardising the process for catching criminals against a backward looking establishment. This alone may have been an interesting picture, in spite of it's glorification of his early achievements and the missed opportunities to discuss his political talents or his much publicised fear of Bolshevism not to mention the constraints of using the scientific method for raising convictions.

The first element is narrated by an older Hoover (during the Presidential tenure of JFK and later) a deeply paranoid man, clinging on to power through blackmail and illegal wire tapping. The film barely plays homage to the unspeakable acts of criminality and suppression that Hoover exercised through his COINTELPRO programme, a bitter taste in the mouth of anyone with a degree of knowledge of the civil rights movement, he may have associated equality with Communism but as we have no basis for the genesis of those beliefs there's no explanation for his acts (save a clunky scene with his dominant mother - Judi Dench - regurgitating anti-Black rhetoric).

What makes this worse is the disfiguring make-up plastered over the younger cast members by this time. Leo's jowls are surprisingly solid but he compensates with a determined physical presence and some possible expression, Naomi Watts as his long-term secretary Helen Gandy largely gets away with her transformation, but poor Armie Hammer playing Associate Director Clyde Tolson peers helplessly through an impenetrable mask of latex unable to contort any facial muscles even before his debilitating stroke. Given the excellent make-up work in The Iron Lady and the modern advances in CGI aging techniques (not something the one take Eastwood would be interested in I expect) this seems utterly baffling.

Finally crowbarred into the narrative is a attempt to clarify Hoover personal relationship with his mother and with Tolson, alluding to the rumoured relationship between the two but without firmly decided whether the rumours are true or not. The film seems to side with an asexual love affair, with Hoover admitting he loves/needs Tolson only to himself and the relationship remaining unconsummated. There are a couple of scenes of hand-holding and one fist-fight inexorably heading towards a kiss but nothing towards romanticism or even hidden passion. Even Tolson's occasional calls for restraint are ignored by Hoover indicating there's little shared intellectual or emotional connection.

I am confused about where the blame lies in this muddled production. I considered laying it Eastwood's door, after all if I believe in auteur theory than the strengths of the director as author are also their failures, however whilst this clearly fits within his back-catalogue it's also his most hack-for-hire directorial work since 2002's Blood Work. The workmanlike approach and unfussy editing is all there, but there's no great resolve for story-telling, even his trademark themes of guilt, retribution and repentance are absent.

I can't even lay it at the hands of cinematographer Tom Stern (although it was terribly dark) or Eastwood's over-present score.

No, the finger of blame lies with Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winning screenwriter for Milk he hews too close to the successful formula he used previously. In Milk Sean Penn, as the titular Supervisor records a statement to be read after his death on a dictaphone detailing his career and personal life. With Harvey the political was the personal, his campaigns relate directly to the discrimination he experienced and the private and public life were visibly entangled. Hoover is writing a (massively embellished) history of the early years of the FBI to a string of untrusted lower level agents, people he sacks merely for not identifying Lindbergh as the most famous American of the 20th Century, so therefore he is unlikely to slip details of his weekend pursuits with Tolson, let alone the kiss, in which case where did those memories come from and how have the audiences heard/experienced them?

It's almost as if Black is using alleged homosexuality as an excuse for his criminality. If he's one of us then he's alright. Compounded by the crass repression by his mother in the absurd daffodil speech, and don't get me started on the cross-dressing grief bit seemingly lifted from a Dummies guide to Freud. No, Dustin, the relationships Hoover had with Tolson, his mother and Gandy are irrelevant and unconnected to his career, or at least if you think they are why didn't you make the point clear in the screenplay.

Ultimately it's what I said in the opening paragraph, decide why you're writing this biography, what is the aim, and simply skirting around the possibility of gay men in power is simply not enough. Audiences deserve better.


Jose Solís said...

Exactly, the screenplay was shit. I'd hate to think that LDB will become the go-to guy for "queering" up the movies. I respect his activism but I don't see why Hoover's crossdressing or alleged homosexuality were any important in this movie. Especially if they have never been proven to be accurate. He was ace in "Milk" but this one made me think it was beginner's luck.

TomS said...

BRAVO!!! A brilliant review, Ben. You captured exactly why this film was the biggest disappointment of the year. So glad you are back, and reviewing again....And thank you for all of your kind support in the past month....

Andrew: Encore Entertainment said...

At least you didn't bash Leo...the movie is incredibly suspect, but the response to this film among others has made me wonder why some actors come out unscathed from terrible films (see Meryl Streep) while others are sometimes indicted for a film's failings, when there seems to be little correlative between said film's badness and said actor.

I completely with you on the paucity of development, tension and reason in the screenplay, it all reads as rather lazy. I don't completely loathe it (the film), but it (the screenplay) is its biggest crutch, and one it cannot overcome.

Runs Like A Gay said...

Hi Chaps,

Thanks for the comments.

I like to think Dustine has a touch more integrity than that, but he needs to escape the Milk formula and hopefully the critical reception from this will help him with that.

I think the biggest disappointment was how we saw this could have been an interesting film but without the courage to focus on just one part that it failed to make a coherent whole. The politics of the early FBI is fascinating and would've have made a briliant pic on it's own. (Hang on, isn't that Public Enemies?)

Leo does a great job in this, and deserves a great deal of praise, however as you say he alone couldn't bring all the divergent sections together.