dir. Clint Eastwood, 2011, USA
The bottom line: The year’s best love story.
Now playing in theaters everywhere is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s 33rd film as a director and, judging by the reviews so far, his most critically divisive. It currently has a shockingly low rating of 41% on the popular critical aggregate site rottentomatoes.com, in spite of the fact that it has received raves from a lot of America’s most prestigious critics, including Roger Ebert, The Village Voice‘s J. Hoberman, MSN‘s Glenn Kenny, The New York Times‘ Manohla Dargis and Artforum‘s Amy Taubin. This split decision means that J. Edgar is virtually guaranteed to be shut out during this year’s awards season, which is regrettable because it arguably represents a career high point for everyone involved – screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (whose smart, ambitiously non-chronological script shows a dazzling complexity that advances on his Oscar-winning Milk from two years ago), Leonardo DiCaprio (who gives what Taubin has rightly referred to as his best performance “as an adult”) and Eastwood (who can count this alongside of Unforgiven and Letters from Iwo Jima as one of his three best movies). Where then does the critical antipathy come from? I believe that examining the criticisms that have been hurled at the film so far should also provide some insight into why some other observers, including me, regard it as a masterpiece.
From a formal standpoint, J. Edgar is easily the most complex film Clint Eastwood has ever made. Black’s screenplay spans J. Edgar Hoover’s 48 years as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a time frame that saw him serve under eight U.S. Presidents, positing him, in the words of the film’s tagline, as the “most powerful man in the world.” Black and Eastwood’s ingenious narrative structure recounts Hoover’s life as a series of flashbacks as he dictates his memoirs as an elderly man in the late 1960s to a series of junior FBI agents – including one who pointedly looks like Barack Obama, one of the film’s many references to American life in the 21st century. These early expositional scenes contain reams of names, dates and places, thrown at the viewer with lightning speed, sometimes through the dialogue and other times through Hoover’s voice over narration. This is not the relaxed pacing we’ve come to expect from Eastwood but something that feels closer to the “sea of information” approach of David Fincher’s Zodiac and The Social Network instead. For many critics, the sheer arduousness of this exposition, which I argue will handsomely pay off for the patient moviegoer, is strike one against J. Edgar.
What is not immediately apparent is the extent to which the flashbacks are meant to represent Hoover’s own highly revisionist and self-aggrandizing version of the events of his life. This is slyly hinted at (but only hinted at) early on in a scene where Hoover is being questioned at a Congressional briefing about his supposed cooperation with the production of comic books and Hollywood movies to promote a more romantic image of the FBI. The full extent of the film’s tricky subjectivity doesn’t register until the final act when Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s “number two man” and longtime companion (brilliantly played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer), explicitly denounces what viewers have been led to believe is the “truth” of Hoover’s memoirs. If, as Tolson claims, there was no white horse at the scene of an early FBI raid, if Hoover himself wasn’t responsible for arresting Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper, then how much of the rest of these flashbacks, which constitute the bulk of the narrative, are we supposed to take at face value? (I guess by the time of Tolson’s denunciation, most critics have checked out of the film anyway.) Imagine a version of Citizen Kane where Kane himself narrates his life story and you’ll have some idea of what Eastwood and Black are up to. Incredibly, some critics have claimed that the film is “overprotective” of its title character or that it somehow “soft pedals” the Hoover story. Even while Eastwood extends sympathy to his protagonist on a personal level, I can’t imagine a more damning indictment of the man’s deeds; his abuses of power and violations of civil liberties are meant to be disturbing even during his glory years, long before his insane harassment of Martin Luther King.
Many critics have drawn parallels between J. Edgar and Kane not only because of the flashback structure and the story arc of an idealistic young man tragically corrupted by power, but also because of the extensive use of makeup and prosthetics. Whether intentionally or not, DiCaprio as old Hoover looks strikingly like Orson Welles as old Kane and most of the barbs aimed at J. Edgar have come from critics unfavorably comparing the former to the latter. The best rejoinder to this criticism comes from Taubin who compares the J. Edgar makeup to what one would find in an “amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears.” I too find the performances of DiCaprio, Hammer and even Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s fiercely loyal secretary) moving precisely because I am aware of the actors being “too young” in much the same way that I am moved by the flashbacks in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, another great memory film, precisely because John Wayne and Jimmy Stewart are “too old.” I would go so far as to say that Hoover’s old age makeup is meant to look like make-up in a film whose main character always wore a figurative mask and whose motto was “we must never lower our guard.” Think that’s a stretch? Consider that the first shot we see of Hoover in the movie immediately follows a close-up of John Dillinger’s death mask on the FBI director’s office desk.
Most of the praise that the film has received, even from its detractors, has been aimed at Leonardo DiCaprio’s bravura lead performance, and rightfully so; in much the same way that we are aware of the old age makeup, we are also acutely aware at all times of DiCaprio behind Hoover. This is as it should be. As a director, Clint Eastwood has gotten a lot of mileage out of manipulating his own iconic persona as an actor. Gran Torino, for instance, is enriched by our understanding that we are watching not only the character of “Walt Kowalski” as the film’s inevitable climax approaches, but also Dirty Harry and even Unforgiven‘s Will Munny. Here, Eastwood does something similar with DiCaprio’s persona; the post-Titanic penchant DiCaprio has shown for playing intensely neurotic, obsessive-compulsive characters reaches its apex in a scene where J. Edgar Hoover, following his mother’s instructions, stares into a mirror and repeats the mantra “I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats. I’m a proficient, remarkable lad capable of proficient and remarkable feats . . .” At this moment we are looking not only at Hoover but DiCaprio and Howard Hughes, a multiplicity that makes the film more resonant.
It is in the more intimate scenes, alternating between Hoover and his mother (a terrific Judi Dench) and between Hoover and Tolson, that Eastwood reveals the film’s surprisingly poignant emotional core – especially since these scenes can be seen to inform each other in a subtle dialectical play: Mrs. Hoover telling her beloved Edgar that she’d “rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” is a disturbing but bracingly believable explanation for why Hoover and Tolson, even as grown men in the privacy of their own homes, are incapable of consummating their platonic love affair. (Some critics have bizarrely claimed that the film is “ambiguous” in its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. It strikes me as inarguable that the film presents Hoover unambiguously as a repressed homosexual who is incapable of acting on his desires.) Even after Mrs. Hoover’s death, the specter of her domineering presence can be felt in the furnishing of her Victorian bedroom, which we see her son has immaculately preserved for decades, in one of the film’s several nods to Psycho, right up until the moment of his own death. But the film’s true emotional climax comes a little ealier, in the staid final scene between Hoover and Tolson as old men; the frontal compositions, marvelous underplaying of the actors and patently restrained Eastwood score put me in the mind of nothing so much as the transcendental final scene of Dreyer’s Gertrud, another masterpiece unjustly criticized for “theatricality” in its day.
Technically, J. Edgar is a tour de force. The low-key lighting and desaturated color palette of Tom Stern’s cinematography perfectly reflect the shadowy morality of Hoover’s universe. The period details of James Murakami’s sets and Deborah Hopper’s costumes, from the 1920s to the 1960s, all feel impeccably right. And the tight, highly compressed quality of the zig-zagging narrative (the two hour and seventeen minute running time was pared down by Eastwood and his longtime editors Joel Cox and Gary Roach from an initial three hour cut) always feels supremely confident. Like Martin Scorsese’s Shutter Island, J. Edgar offers an audacious mix of darkness, intelligence and complexity aimed at adult viewers that may seem out of step with contemporary critical tastes, but it also seems destined to age exceedingly well with time.