Monday, November 14, 2011

Johnny and Clyde

Films like Clint Eastwood's latest, J. Edgar, really trip me up. You see, J. Edgar, which, yes, tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, is an ambitious, often well made film with some impressive acting. But it's also not one I felt much attachment to after the lights went up. Days later, I felt more obligated to write a review than compelled. When movies don't hit you on an emotional level after the fact, and don't drive you to go home and write about them, then that's kind of a bummer, even when they're good movies. That's the predicament I find myself in with J. Edgar.

Written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk), J. Edgar tells the story of John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), whose appetite for power brought him to one of the highest positions in the U.S. government — one he held for 48 years. In that time, he elevated the power and ability of law enforcement officials to solve crimes, and he would go to any lengths to pursue what he defined as the right thing.

Feared by many, Hoover was in some ways like the Tom Ridge of his day; his agency was charged with preventing domestic terrorism, a term that had a wide definition as far as Hoover was concerned. That's because Hoover was paranoid, protective, suspicious, and jealous. He held grudges, kept watch on figures like the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr., and allegedly kept secret files with information he could use to blackmail officials when needed. And this was ironic because while Hoover knew everyone else's secrets, he was protecting a giant secret about himself: that he was a closeted gay man.

Eastwood, Black, and DiCaprio have created a portrait of a man with lots of contradictions: While professionally he doggedly pursued any threat, personally he was a mama's boy who was vulnerable, scared, and closed off. The film isn't graphic about his relationship with Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer), Hoover's Associate Director, protégé, and supposed lover, but it makes a clear case that the two had a relationship that was more than professional.

And DiCaprio is excellent, affecting Hoover's mid-Atlantic accent and mannerisms. As Hoover ages, DiCaprio's face gets covered up with more and more makeup; it's a showy job by the makeup artists, but DiCaprio's gruff and forceful acting shows through. For a change, he seems like a man, and not a boyish actor playing a man, and his more rounded appearance here helps the cause. (Hammer's makeup, on the other hand, is less convincing; just try not to giggle when the elder Tolson first appears on screen.)

The parallels to modern times here are unavoidable, as Hoover goes after any alleged threats to American security, no matter how small, personal, and irrelevant. And we see how Hoover let others do his dirty work while he took the credit (and blame). While interesting, chances are good the film would be a lot less relevant had we not lived through the past 10 years that we did. Black's screenplay is certainly suspicious of Hoover and his motives; parts of the film could be transposed to 2004 with few adjustments.

Yet despite the attempts to show what drove Hoover, something still feels lacking about J. Edgar. It's a swiftly moving and often enjoyable film, even with a two hour and 15 minute running time. But it's essentially told from Hoover's point of view as he dictates his memoirs to one typist after another (including one played, amusingly enough, by Ed Westwick, from Gossip Girl), and maybe that's where it all gets tripped up. While he thinks he is, Hoover is hardly a noble, heroic figure, so it's hard to really invest much of yourself in his success. After a while, the bullying just gets to be a bit much. Who wants to root for a bad guy you can't feel much sympathy for? (And a screenplay that's weighted down with pithy, cliché-sounding statements about how power corrupts takes away from the overall effect too.) So that's why, in the end, J. Edgar is only getting a B from me.



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