At this point in its run, discussing J. Edgar without bringing up the considerable negative reaction the film has accrued would be...difficult. Not just because I feel that they couldn't be more off base, but just as much because I realize that my surprisingly passionate response towards Clint Eastwood's latest opus is by far the minority opinion, particularly among writers of my age range. And if Clint Eastwood only makes films for old people and young people who are regularly referred to as "old man," then so be it - there are too few films for us as it is. But I will nevertheless attempt to show you the film I saw on Tuesday.
The film opens on what will have to pass as the "present day," or roughly the early 1960s (though this "present day" will extend all the way up through 1972). Eastwood shows a total lack of concern for making explicit dates throughout the film, befitting screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's method of diving across decades in the blink of an eye, and back again. This isn't a film about what happened, but how one man says it happened. The problem is that that man is J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most powerful men in American history, and as they say, history is written by the victors. As much as I hate the modern method of just naming biopics after their subjects, J. Edgar is a particularly apt title - this is Hoover and he sees himself, and what becomes so fascinating over the course of the film is just how pathetic that is.
Right away his whole testimony should be called into question - when the agent taking dictation for the purposes of memoir asks if Edgar was really at the scene of an early crime, he simply says, "Let's leave that to the reader's imagination." The J. Edgar Hoover of the past, at least the one he describes to agents, is a bright, ambitious man who always has the right thing to say at the right time, and though he may battle bureaucratic forces, he will always prove the victor. But of the present? Tossed out of the offices of his superiors, rejected by those he loves, questioned by everyone, and belittled at every turn. Near the end of the film, he reflects on how evil flourishes when good men do nothing in conjunction with Richard Nixon taking office, which seems like kind of a stretch (that Hoover saw Nixon for what he was right away, despite their overlapping interests). This is undermined a few minutes later when it turns out Edgar was mostly concerned with Nixon going after his personal files, which he'd kept locked away in his office for decades. When Clyde suggests to Edgar that he retire after Nixon takes office, Edgar just says, "Shut up, Clyde," and when pushed, he rattles off the resume he finds so impressive, but can only come up with examples from the Great Depression. These instances reveal the truth underneath his version of the story (and thus the key to unlocking the film as a portrait of a "fussy little man"), and more so the truth behind the framing device, which I don't think is everything it appears to be.
If there's one thing we learn about Edgar (as he prefers to be called), it's that he doesn't take guff from many people, least of all his underlings. Yet every agent who comes to take his dictation questions his past decisions, corrects some facts he misconstrues, and points out the dark underbelly of the empire he built. Why would he put up with that? Well, chiefly, I don't think they're really there, per se. Not that Edgar is literally walking around his office talking to himself (after all, he and his secretary discuss one of the agents), but rather that it's a particularly keen invention on the part of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black to reveal the rather sorry state of Edgar's soul - a man constantly propping himself up, even as he knows his actions have resulted in men losing their careers, their families, and their lives. That Eastwood directs each of the agents towards very monotone, even, undistinguished performances is part of the point; these men represent Edgar's conscience, not his employees. This is underscored right up front if you know Hoover's education background (the first agent says he received his law degree from George Washington University, and had an ailing mother to care for; both are true of Hoover), but the general pitch of the scenes indicate this far more interesting subtext.
This is far from the Eastwood we're used to, and his stylistic touches hardly stop there; the one that really knocked me off my feet was the introduction of Clyde Tolson.
There are so many aspects to this scene I scarcely know where to begin. Not only is it an incredibly effective, haunting scene, but it points to some fascinating thematic undercurrents. Edgar has just finished recounting his raid on a Communist organization in New Jersey, which cost, according to the agent transcribing his tale, everyone else in the Bureau involved in the arrests their job. We faintly hear a man call Edgar's name, and Edgar instructs the agent to "ignore him," which he does, up to a point. A figure, this haunting, ghostly image on the other side of the opaque doorway, opens Edgar's door a crack, and reminds him of his appointment with the Attorney General. Edgar insists the figure, who he regards as "Mr. Tolson," "please go away", with a rudeness that will be uncommon in their relationship as we eventually see it unfold. Mr. Tolson holds there for a second longer than is necessary, all the while framed as this ghostly image, a figure haunting Edgar just outside of his comfort zone.
This comes twenty-five minutes into the film. It takes that long for Black and Eastwood to introduce the other man in the film's supposedly-central love story. It will take another seven before we get the flashback explaining who Mr. Tolson even is, much less who he will become. This decision, which can look careless on paper, is of monumental importance on a structural level - Mr. Tolson (Clyde, as he will come to be known) is a person Edgar tries to push away from his public life however possible, until the memory of him, the figure (if not necessarily the man himself) comes barging into his subconscious and refuses to be ignored. From there, it's a flood of memories, as Clyde grows more and more important and eventually is inextricable. Eastwood being Eastwood, this isn't piled on, but it is nonetheless a felt influence, and central to the film's work-before-pleasure attitude.
I know many would have liked a more urgent exploration of Hoover's alleged relationship with Clyde Tolson (and one must bear in mind that, like many aspects of Hoover's life, the extent of their real-life relationship will never be fully known), but I think Eastwood and Black's treatment of it is far deeper, and far more interesting, than the simple "yeah, okay, probably he was gay, but let's not dwell on that shall we?" attitude to which many are ascribing it. Their vision of Hoover is not only probably more historically accurate, but it's also a lot more dramatically compelling - he drew Clyde close to him until he couldn't allow himself to get any closer. The film ascribes much of the blame for Edgar's psychological resistance to homosexuality to his mother (played here by a very creepy Judi Dench), and maybe they're right to do so and maybe they're not, but his mother at least represents some essential element within Edgar that makes homosexuality repellant to him. Eastwood doesn't always handle this push-and-pull gracefully, and I don't think he really builds to their major confrontation in the hotel room in a dramatic sense. From a structural standpoint, however (and Black's screenplay is magnificent in this regard), it's an important operatic note approaching the final third of the film that reveals the raging inner passion within both Edgar and Clyde, albeit to differing ends. It's also played admirably petty and shrill, a true fight.
The point is that for Edgar, the possibility of a romance is an intrusion. He proposes marriage early on to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who refuses but becomes his lifelong secretary, but after that is actively uncomfortable with any romantic proposition, even one as simple as a dance. He simply looks away and goes right back to work, and while this might not be the most exciting path the filmmakers could have taken, it strikes me as admirably insightful.
Besides, his career in the FBI, an organization he practically founded, is storied enough. Edgar naturally focuses on their victories, the golden years when his publicity machine was working overtime to promote the G-Men to the status of superheroes (an era that is thoroughly undermined by the picture's end), but again, look to the present, when he's subtly orchestrating a plot to undermine Martin Luther King, Jr. The film naturally avoids some of the more controversial allegations in that regard, but it makes no bones about how Hoover saw King as the latest version of the Communist terror he had long sought to thwart. And if he pursues it as passionately as ever, nobody else seems to understand his choice of an enemy, recognizing instantly that he's searching for one anywhere he can find it. In another fruitless pursuit, then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy (portrayed very badly by Jeffrey Donovan) pretty much throws him out for even bringing it up.
While I admired the film principally for Eastwood's masterful direction and Black's solid-as-a-rock screenplay, it'd be disingenuous to not discuss Leonardo DiCaprio's lead performance. This is not the first busily-conflicted historical figure he's played, and like his Howard Hughes, J. Edgar Hoover is a man full of eccentricities (DiCaprio gets knocked for what many see as his inability to do comedy, but I found his instructions to the men bringing in his filing cabinets to be a very acute comedic beat), but is a far sturdier presence (eventually aided by padding his mother and doctor assure him is "solid weight"). Like all of DiCaprio's performances over the last nine years, it's wildly theatrical, the kind the cooler-than-the-Oscars crowd likes to rail against but which inevitably draws praise from all corners. DiCaprio has long been tagged for his "boyish" looks, and indeed there's rarely anything masculine about his face, aside from one, important feature - his eyes, which have a steely determination that is near lunacy, and especially as Edgar gets older and older and the make-up thicker and thicker, those eyes will become the characteristic to which we are most attached. As well we should be.
DiCaprio is often criticized for his accent work, which he indulges in regularly but has never quite mastered. This is probably his most affected to date, but I've always found his vocal performance to be totally compelling, and that is no different here. He is our guide while the picture criss-crosses through the decades, and a commanding presence it is. Eastwood wisely directs the rest of his actors around DiCaprio, pushing them to performances that might fit the stage better than the screen (they would undoubtedly be more widely-acclaimed there) to fit Black's admittedly stage-y dialogue. While he certainly commits some egregious sins of exposition ("your brother, the President of the United States" and "You mean Mrs. Roosevelt?" sting especially hard), Black isn't going for conversational dialogue, nor should he. It's big dialogue befitting a big story about a powerful figure. It's lightyears away from his work on Milk, but it's also more thematically, structurally, and dramatically rewarding.
And Eastwood...man. As noted previously, I never would have guessed he had this in him, but his execution of some rather tricky transitions and ambitious structure is incredible. He weaves the past and present together so effortlessly, creating visual parallels to emphasize the thematic ones. I was particularly taken by a montage in which Edgar rides comfortably in an elevator in the 1960s while his men do his dirty work (and dirty it is), a juxtaposition that will pay off in spades by the end of the film, and then...the elevators open, and we're effortlessly back into the 1930s. No music (Eastwood is characteristically restrained in his use of score, which he writes himself), no sweeping camera moves. Simple, elegant shots and sharp, rhythmic cuts. Classical, but very effective montage. Time slips and flows like sand, getting jumbled up every time you dip your hand in.
It's a story, but it's more important than that - it's an idea, an emotion, a clear dissection of the line between Edgar's work and that which he instructs. This isn't the only instance of Eastwood cleverly slipping through time as his characters enter and exit rooms (most notably, one sequence has Edgar exist Clyde's house in 1969 and arrive at his own in 1972), but it is by far the most elegant.
For all his restraint, however, Eastwood displays a certain charming messiness that...well, it's the most difficult aspect of his work to discuss, because his sharpest critics accuse Eastwood of being too dry and also too messy. But it's that element that makes Eastwood's work so electrifying, and causes it to rise above from the biopics both montage-laden (Ray, Milk, etc.) and truly "uninvestigative" (The Queen) to which we're accustomed. Richard Brody describes it best:
Eastwood is, and always has been, a great sketch artist for whom brisk, stylized restraint - a sort of opaque tightness within a frame of breezy looseness - has always been second nature. The sense of improvication in tension with reserve, of expressive freedom conflicting with circumspect reticence, is one of Eastwood's fundamental themes, not least in J. Edgar. What's more, most directors, when they get older, get even sketchier - they're in more of a hurry to expose their feelings and ideas and they have learned not to worry about trivia in their urgency to get to the heart of the matter. They get both quicker and more radical.When I was at AFI Fest, I attended a panel dedicated to young actors who had some heat going into awards season. Armie Hammer (whose work here is fine, if a little knowing and mannered, but he absolutely nails his old-man phase) was on that panel, and spoke of how he was introduced to Eastwood, a week before shooting was to commence on J. Edgar. This means that not only had Eastwood not met Hammer prior to casting him, and Hammer's story implied that they hadn't even spoken. Eastwood simply said "I'm looking forward to seeing what you'll do."
I know, to many, this statement will confirm everything they despise in Eastwood's work, which takes on an air of the studio era way of working, in which everybody pretty much showed up to work and was responsible for their assigned department. And maybe it is, but they made some damn electric films back then precisely because of the invisible specter of the unexpected. Resultantly, Eastwood creates a unified theatrical environment in his performances, but each actor brings a very distinct interpretation of their character and the story as a whole to bear, and creates a more lively environment than many give it credit for.
After two notable, but not exactly good, films (even I can't find anything notable in Invictus), Eastwood has reemerged here with his best film since Letters from Iwo Jima, and one of the most electrifying directorial turns of the year. His methods, if unusual, pay off in spades here, in no small part because he tapped Leonardo DiCaprio, one of the finest actors of this generation, to lead the charge with a performance as commanding as it is compelling. If they don't find the truth of the real J. Edgar Hoover, they certainly find his truth, and what better way to get at one of the most powerful men of the 20th century?