Friday, December 2, 2011

J. Edgar: Kiss and Make-Up

A week ago yesterday was Thanksgiving. (I'm sorry I didn't mention it sooner. I hope none of you missed it). What a Thanksgiving it was! Jason Witten tackled a cheerleader! President Obama sent this year's pardoned turkey to Disneyland! ("Courage the Turkey, you've just been given a new lease on life! What are you going to do now?!"). And everyone in the U.S. of A. was surrounded by family and friends. Everyone except me, that is. I was across the continent from my loved ones, in a sleazy L.A. motel near Filipinotown (I'm sorry...HISTORIC Filipinotown. Because nothing says "historic" like a Jack-in-the-Box). In lieu of loved ones, I shared my holiday with the couple in the next room. Or more accurately, they shared THEIR holiday with me, generously sending their outrageously faked orgasm moans through the paper-thin wall. They tended to do this most every night, but I think they went the extra mile for Thanksgiving. (Come to think of it, I wish they HAD gone an extra mile, so I wouldn't have had to listen to them). I did buy a can of cranberry sauce, but after opening it I realized I didn't have a spoon. So, I ate it Jell-O shot style out of a plastic cup.

The upshot of all this is that I saw J. EDGAR last Thursday. While enjoyable, it's definitely one of Eastwood's lesser works. I think a large part of the problem is that he let his politics come into play. Eastwood is fairly right-wing, and the film that he made is constructed as a love letter to a complex, flawed, but ultimately good man. It never quite makes Hoover cuddly (DiCaprio's fantastically guarded performance makes sure of that), but the main goal seems to be generating sympathy for the guy.

Generating sympathy CAN be a valid reason for making a film. I'm not really a fan of Oliver Stone, but I love NIXON. That was a movie where Stone put his politics aside and said, "Look. I hate this guy. I think he's trash. But he acted the way he did due to the same feelings of hurt and fear and love that we all experience every day." And he created a three-and-a-half hour portrait of a man, largely fantasy, but haunting and fascinating.

I don't think you can reasonably take that approach with Hoover though. While Nixon always came across as kind of pathetic, Hoover was the most powerful man in America for thirty years. You can't paint him as the underdog. You can't try to make me like him. I may end up liking him, but that shouldn't be the filmmaker's goal. While I'm sure Hoover did a lot of good in his early days with the Bureau, fighting actual threats, he also had more of a hand than anyone else in corrupting the U.S. government. He initiated the wiretapping, the illegal file theft, the planting of evidence, the blackmail. All of this stuff was previously going on in local police precincts, of course, but Hoover brought it to a federal level. Suddenly the President of the United States could be bought and sold. Suddenly a good man couldn't go into politics without making some compromises. If Hoover hadn't gotten this system in motion, someone else undeniably would have. But Hoover did it.

One of the great ironies is that while Hoover amassed files on the everyday movements of every politician and celebrity in the country, very little information exists on his own private life. He was in the perfect position, more than anyone else in the world, to keep his own cards face-down on the table. The result is that Eastwood is given lots of leeway to use his imagination. What he comes up with is, unfortunately, not all that interesting. An overbearing mother to explain his need for control and his withdrawn nature (as well as a touch of Norman Bates syndrome). Repressed homosexuality to explain his obsession with others' sexual deviance. It's all well-executed, but it's so cliche. Hoover was far too complex and divisive for such an obvious approach. He deserves a meatier treatment. Instead, what we get is essentially a fairy tale. (No pun intended). One of the cheesiest scenes is when young Hoover is mocked for having too many nicknames, and told to just "pick a name." He inevitably signs "J. Edgar" with great import, as if this was some life-altering moment. In reality, many men in Hoover's time used the first-initial-middle-name approach--there was nothing unusual about it. The fact that the film puts emphasis on such a silly moment, but doesn't even mention COINTELPRO, says a lot about Eastwood's priorities.

The most effective aspect of the film is the love story. As a filmmaker, Eastwood was sharp enough to see that, and he made that relationship the centerpiece of the film. DiCaprio takes off just enough edge in these scenes. Armie Hammer, who made an impression in THE SOCIAL NETWORK, really blew me away here as Clyde Tolson. The script doesn't give us too good a reason why this attractive, well-adjusted guy would spend more than thirty years of his life in a celibate relationship with Hoover; but Hammer's performance has just the right levels of confidence and fragility to make it clear that for Tolson, this is true love, and there is nothing else out there. The scenes between these guys are the best in the film, and the performances fill in any cracks that might exist in the script.

The title of my review refers to the two most talked-about aspects of the film. The man-on-man kiss has been discussed in every interview with the two actors, of course, because the idea of same-sex kissing still makes talk show hosts and audiences titter like schoolboys. The make-up has been universally derided as looking caked-on, with some comparing it to "old Biff" in BACK TO THE FUTURE PART II. Maybe I'm just oblivious to this kind of thing. I never even noticed how bad the BACK TO THE FUTURE make-up looked until I saw it in high def a few months ago. To me, DiCaprio's make-up looked fine. It was a LOT of make-up, yes. The older Hoover was quite a bit heavier than DiCaprio, so it would have to be a lot. But I could still catch the nuances of the performance. More of an argument could be made against Tolson's make-up, which did look ghoulish in some of the close-ups, but I didn't feel it inhibited Hammer's performance.

The framing device for the film is Hoover in his office, dictating his autobiography to a revolving-door of agent-stenographers. We see the flashbacks as he describes them. Near the end of the film, Tolson accuses him of fabricating large parts of his story, telling him (and us) that an important arrest we watched Hoover make was actually carried out by another agent. Hoover wasn't even at the scene. The "unreliable narrator" is a great underused element in literature. It's tough to pull off on film, although when done right you get some terrifically thought-provoking movies (see: RASHOMON, THE USUAL SUSPECTS, FIGHT CLUB, BIG FISH). In J. EDGAR, it's just kind of aggravating. All of a sudden, at the very end of the movie, the filmmakers decide to tell the audience that everything you've just watched may not have happened even within the reality of the film (never mind actual history). Maybe if a few seeds had been dropped sooner, a couple of conflicting versions of the same scene had been shown, it might have been more interesting. But suddenly dropping that information at the very end of the film feels cheap. I assume Eastwood did it for deniability, so that when people inevitably attack the precarious historicity of the film or his whitewashed portrayal of Hoover, he can point and say, "Well, I told you in the film itself that some of it was made up!"

Despite its flaws, I would recommend watching J. EDGAR, whether or not you have any direct interest in Hoover himself. It's a good piece of filmmaking from one of our great filmmakers, with some terrific performances. Just try not to come out of it thinking you've learned anything.

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