“Did he confess?”
“What kind of sociopath would?”
The answer, apparently, is this one. J.Edgar Hoover has always been A figure of interest – politically, philosophically and culturally – and yet he has not until now had a movie made about him; discounting, of course, those propaganda pictures that were puffed out during his earlier years in office. This is astounding because of just how important and obviously filmic his story is; after all the man essentially pioneered modern criminology and ran the F.B.I. under – or perhaps above – eight individual presidents. Hoover then is at heart a non-fiction Forrest Gump, his life story takes him on travels thorough all of histories major events; only he didn’t experience them as an outsider or by accident because in many cases he was in fact responsible for their occurring.
His then is an astounding story and yet for many people that apparently wasn’t extraordinary enough and so they sought to stretch it – sometimes this was aggrandizement and others an act of aggression – and it is this run of rumors that have seemingly made telling the story of this man near impossible. Thankfully then this constantly intriguing character is treated with eternal respect by the creative trio of Leo, Clint and writer Dustin Lance Black; who here crafts a queered political script that is every bit as strong as “Milk”, if not more so. The question though has to be: is this man as great as that one? And should they really have been so kind?
Conservatives have long been censored in the media by virtue of arts inherent leftist leanings; think back on your viewing history, how many films have you seen in which the protester is the hero and how many the politician or the policeman that shuts them down? For the most part this is a probably a good thing as artists reenactments of such events have assisted greatly in strengthening their message and enacting necessary social change, but it is nevertheless very interesting to see this other side for once.
It is easy now that we know better to look back at say America’s McCarthyist movement as a mistake; but as the film itself stresses these people had to make their decisions in a context very different to our own, with a fan of facts that was stacked in an entirely different direction. So while we would scoff at blackmailing a black-rights leader like Martin Luther King for Hoover it was what had to be done; to him the fight for equal rights was as alien an idea as building a Muslim rec centre is for many Americans now. The morals were much more complicated back in that ‘simpler time’ than we allow ourselves to believe.
Clint Eastwood is such an interesting director because he usually does very little of interest with his films; like Ron Howard he directs without ego, with no signature flourishes or distracting style, he simply seeks out stunning stories and tries to tell them straight. This one though is an exception, the story has been chopped up and shuffled as we switch between sections of the ‘present day’ and chapters of the man’s memoirs. While this can be a successful narrative device, one that provides the opportunity for useful juxtapositions, here it complicates more than it elucidates; even with the clever ending that subtly undermines all that we have seen thus far. The connection between the two characters was tenuous at best and the additions only aesthetic.
All in all this film suffers from being too implement, something that I never thought I would say about Clint’s behind the camera work. There are too many facets to both J.Edgar and the film as a whole for us to take in: is this a meta mediation on the nature of truth in publicity? A look into our desire to craft people into storybook characters, coarse heroes or villains and nothing in between? Is it a parable on the double-edged point of political power? A mirror for the fear driven audience of American’s to look into and contemplate how their actions will be judged in the future? An origin story for contemporary crime scene investigation? A character study or a look at how lives were effected by the near-necessary closeting that occurred in the era? It’s all of these things and many, many more, all great ideas but my mind simply couldn’t cope with all of them at once, scattered as they were over the length of this movie, and if you introduce even one to many balls to the juggle then each and every one of them will be dropped and that is what happens here.
I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Eastwood’s direction was dire because on a scene by scene basis he is as good here as he’s ever been; the actions scenes especially are electric, each bullet and explosion hits you like it hits the characters, but much of their potential impact is lost thanks to the way that the overall structure struggles. The script is probably also to blame for this but it gets a pass thanks in part to the wit and humanity that Black provides to the otherwise dry political material, this film had more laugh out loud moments than anything i’ve seen in the cinema for quite some time. The acting is also absolutely excellent and I can say that without any exception or further explanation. Leo’s lead performance is pitch perfect, larger than life but never hammy which is a hard task given just how heavy-handed some of Edgar’s ticks and traits can be, while Arnie Hammer gives a small but equally effecting supporting performance as his number one man; that these two weren’t nominated yesterday for some Academy Awards is a a travesty. So the technical elements are both hit and miss, but the former out class the latter to my mind.
J.Edgar would not appreciate being compared to any of the men i’ve mentioned in this review, nor the man writing it; in fact had they been in the same circles i’ve no doubt that he probably would have had them arrested, deported or shot dead. I wonder, is that a trait of a great man? Does that sound like someone who should be given a movie that tells his side of the story, that humanizes him? No. This film is not even a confession of guilt, because Hoover never gives any concession that what he had done was a crime; in a way it is instead a celebration, not of everything that he did, but of the reasons why he did them. This then is not just the simple story of one messed-up man but rather one of many, one of America and modern American history as a whole and for that reason this is a story that should be told, though it could maybe have been told a little better. That’s easy to say now though after the act is over, out of Clint’s context; who knows if it really could have?