Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar: Too contrived an agenda

J. Edgar (2011) • View trailer for J. Edgar
2.5 stars. Rating: R, and rather stupidly, for brief profanity
By Derrick Bang • Originally published in The Davis Enterprise, 11.11.11

A fascinating film could be made about the life of notorious FBI autocrat J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar, sadly, is not that film.
As Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, background left) and J. Edgar Hoover
(Leonardo DiCaprio, background center) look on, FBI "wood expert" Arthur
Koehler (Stephen Root) carefully examines bits of the ladder used when the
Lindbergh baby was kidnapper. Koehler insists that he can match the ladder to
the plant where the wood was milled, and therefore confine the kidnapper's
movements to a specific geographic area.

Scripter Dustin Lance Black’s approach to this seminal 20th century figure is boring. Yawningly, crushingly boring.

I expected much better from Black, who won an Academy Award for his screenplay to 2008’s Milk. Unfortunately, in this case he focuses far too much on the clandestine affair between Hoover and longtime associate/companion Clyde Tolson.

Yes, we can lament the fact that Hoover and Tolson lived during unenlightened times, when “the love that dare not speak its name” was something to be concealed, particularly by men in power. And Black certainly intends that we consider the irony that one of the country’s most powerful men, a trader in dirty secrets himself, kept a whopper of his own.

But that would presuppose that Hoover is a man worthy of our sympathy, which isn’t the case. His intelligence, determination and maniacal patriotism notwithstanding, Hoover was — and is, as portrayed here by Leonardo DiCaprio — a venal, arrogant control freak, blackmailer and political kingpin every bit as corrupt as the headline-making gangsters his nascent Federal Bureau of Investigation helped bring down in the 1930s.

Hoover does not deserve our compassion, nor does he deserve the strawberry-lensed portrait that director Clint Eastwood grants him. And this Hoover certainly doesn’t merit the gentle keyboard theme that dominates the soundtrack: a lyrical eulogy that sounds much like the poignant piano ballads Eastwood composed for The Bridges of Madison County or Million Dollar Baby, but is completely out of place here.

The leaden pacing aside, this film’s other major problem is tone and focus: Both are completely wrong. Black suggests that the complicated relationship with Tolson was the single most important element of Hoover’s character, closely followed by his equally troubled relationship with a domineering mother (Judi Dench, at her waspish best) who’d rather have a “dead son than a daffodil.”

This is one view, and certainly a contributing factor to the elements that stoked Hoover’s growing paranoia, desperation and thirst for control. But Hoover obviously was far more than that, and Black utterly fails in his depiction of the man’s professional career: his genius for organization, his sharp political savvy, his quite accurate insistence that agents of law enforcement need investigative resources superior to the criminals they hope to apprehend.

What emerges is no more than a truncated, Readers Digest Condensed Books version of a very complex life: little more than surface gloss given minimal depth by DiCaprio’s performance.

Additionally — and perhaps to give ironic emphasis to his core notion that Hoover “could distort the truth as easily as he upheld it” (quoting the film’s press notes) — Black falls into the trap of granting too much control to an unreliable narrator. Alfred Hitchcock learned the folly of this approach, with 1950’s Stage Fright; audiences rebel when they realize key characters have been lying. It’s perceived as a trick, and rightly so.

Eastwood begins his film in the mid-1970s, with Hoover nearing the end of his life and stranglehold as director of the FBI. Wanting to preserve everything he has created — but wanting more to spin himself as an admirable figure in history — he begins dictating his memoirs to a rotating series of junior FBI agents. These glorified secretaries are retained or released, chapter by chapter, according to Hoover’s mercurial and always prejudicial whims.

His saga begins back in 1919, as a young U.S. Justice Department employee who sees his calling in our government’s lackadaisical response to the Bolshevik “invasions” that resulted in numerous bomb threats, explosions and other terrorist acts. The impassioned young Hoover’s rhetoric, as shaped by Black, clearly draws parallels to our perceived national complacency today, when confronted by the threat of radical Islamic terrorists.

Hoover orchestrates his career with the smooth-talking ability to curry favor with the right people at the right time; at a very young age, he winds up heading the nascent Bureau of Investigation, which he immediately molds according to his own views on moral purity. Agents in his employ will not drink — ever — nor will they smoke in his presence. Facial hair is intolerable, and care must be paid to all aspects of personal grooming and dress. The ubiquitous ties must not be too loud.

In one sense, this is shrewd; it projects an image of the “G-man” as virtuous, trustworthy and extremely photogenic. In truth, though, this is merely the first manifestation of Hoover’s mania as a control freak, and the insistence that all his staff members reflect well on him. Nothing is to interfere with Hoover’s image as America’s No. 1 crusading law enforcement agent.

This also extends to Hoover’s taking credit for all FBI activities, much the way Walt Disney — as studio producer — accepted the Academy Awards won by his filmmaking artists and directors. Thus, when Melvin Purvis finally captures notorious outlaw John Dillinger and obtains public acclaim for having done so, he’s demoted to desk duty by a furious Hoover.

As suggested by Black, Hoover allows himself the luxury of trusting only two people. The first, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), becomes his personal secretary after turning down a clumsy marriage proposal. Somehow, this makes her an honorable figure in Hoover’s eyes: an intriguing leap of faith that Black can’t quite sell. However this decision actually was made, though, it proved inspired: Gandy would go on to become Hoover’s most faithful lifelong ally, and would honor that trust even after his death.

The other confidante is Tolson (Armie Hammer, well remembered as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), hired into Hoover’s “new FBI” not because of exceptional qualifications, but because of a flutter of close personal chemistry. Tolson becomes Hoover’s right-hand man, present at all congressional hearings, always ready with necessary facts and figures.

Outside of work, Hoover and Tolson eat lunch and dinner together every day, and take vacations together. The implications are easy, and Black embraces them ... but it’s important to remember that nobody knows the actual truth concerning this relationship. This script — and film — are speculative; Hoover took his personal secrets (and those of many other important figures) to the grave.

Watts and Hammer slide smoothly into their roles, both far more interesting, as characters, than DiCaprio’s often stilted and “mannered” performance as Hoover. Indeed, Tolson is this story’s great tragic figure, and Hammer deftly conveys the man’s singular insistence on personal loyalty.

One vicious argument between the two men is breathtaking in its ferocity (all the more so, given the rest of the film’s indolent pacing). Hammer’s performance here is painful and nakedly vulnerable: one of those moments that transcends acting.

Which is something DiCaprio never does. His Hoover is a stilted, often clumsy echo of his Howard Hughes, in 2004’s The Aviator. Alas, Black’s take on J. Edgar isn’t nearly as fascinating, nor complex, as that earlier film’s take on Hughes. Nor does Eastwood give Hoover’s career the pizzazz it deserves, which Martin Scorsese did so much better with the equally eccentric and ultimate bizarre Hughes.

Then too, the old-age make-up is distracting. Eastwood hired a veritable army of make-up artists to persuasively bring Hoover, Tolson and Gandy into the 1960s and ’70s; the results probably would have been acceptable in small doses, but we spend far too much time with these characters in their latter-day selves. Only Hammer successfully “acts” Tolson’s older self; Watts’ Gandy doesn’t even seem to have aged as much as the other two.

As for Hoover, despite the considerable efforts of makeup artist Sian Grigg — whose affiliation with the actor dates back to Titanic — DiCaprio never looks comfortable in the elderly FBI titan’s pallid, jowly skin.

Finally, and perhaps most irritatingly, Black’s script completely skips the lengthy middle portion of Hoover’s career. We see him only at the very beginning and the very end; the memoirs cease with the 1934 arrest and 1935 trial of Bruno Hauptmann, charged with having kidnapped and killed the 20-month-old son of Charles and Anne Lindbergh. We get absolutely nothing from 1935 through the early 1960s.

That three-decade gap is just bizarre ... and also unsatisfying, as is the case with the entire film. I’ve no idea what Eastwood and Black wish us to make of their J. Edgar Hoover, and — unfortunately — only this much is true: Eastwood’s impressive winning streak is over. J. Edgar is a dull, unfocused and superficial depiction of a fascinating real-life individual who deserves much, much better.

This is the type of “biopic” that merely irritates, and makes us wish to read books in order to get a more honest and thorough grasp of the subject.

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