Monday, November 21, 2011
The Wizard of Oz
Today's film, Clint Eastwood's biopic, J. Edgar.
My first look of any detail into the FBI came recently from Bryan Burroughs's book Public Enemy (and, to a lesser degree, from the Michael Mann / Johnny Depp film of the same name that grew out of it). Of course, anyone growing up in this country is familiar with the acronym FBI and, if you're old enough, with the term "G-Men." And I had heard of J. Edgar Hoover a zillion times in my reading over the years, but I had never read a biography of him and most of those previous accounts mentioned his name with a kind of knowing sideways glance. He's an oversize and controversial figure in American history, one of those love him / hate him kind of guys who--whatever else you might say about him--got shit done.
So, a worthy and logical subject for a movie exposé. And I was especially interested when I learned that Eastwood was directing and Leonardo Di Caprio was starring. Eastwood has a reputation for being thoughtful and a calm and probing eye behind the camera, and Di Caprio seems always to surprise and delight, an everyman who seems able to pull off anything he tries. And what they're trying is ambitious indeed: the story covers more or less Hoover's whole life from a quick look at his childhood to his death in 1972. The story mostly takes the form of flashbacks as an elderly Hoover, in his office, dictates his autobiography to a series of clerks. He's really dictating the autobiography of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, and indeed it's hard--for us and especially for Hoover himself--to see where one entity ends and the other begins; the Bureau without Hoover, and Hoover without the Bureau, were both difficult to conceive. And so the task faced by director Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) was always going to be daunting.
But now I wonder if it isnt too daunting, if there isn't simply too much here to be covered adequately in two hours' time. The material is just so voluminous and the character of Hoover so outsized that I'm suspicious when leaving the theater that I really "know" anything. The rise of the FBI, one of the world's signal shadowy governmental agencies, and Hoover's role in it, coincides with the rise of modern culture, and all of it steeped in the raw-sewage world of politics and power. A mini-series at the least seems called for. And so much of what makes Hoover intriguing personally was the controversy that swirled, and continues to swirl, around him: Was he gay? And just HOW gay? What was his relationship with his mother? And with his second-in-command? Was he a hypocrite for demanding a purity of his agents that he seemed not to possess himself? And would that detail be salient even if true? What has any of this to do with his effect on history?
Though I certainly don't accuse Eastwood of dwelling on the prurient or sensational, yet to concentrate on these things in our quest to understand the larger questions--and J. Edgar Hoover is one huge larger question--is like paying attention to Glenn Gould's mittens and creaking chair and humming instead of the transcendant Bach that came from those mittened fingers. I suppose you cannot tell Hoover's story without talking about his apparently closeted and confused sexuality, and yet the phenomenon of Hoover seems much, much larger than these personal details. Much as I love the brilliant Dame Judy Dench, who here plays Hoover's domineering and exacting mother, I wonder if this whole aspect could not have been cleared out to make space for more, well, relevant bits of the story.
Di Caprio is in every scene and is brilliant as the driven and exacting and paranoid man who erects a massive bureaucracy around his very personal demons. But there's a certain distance in Di Caprio's portrayal that keeps us from really getting inside the man. This is very likely by design; perhaps no one really understood J. Edgar Hoover. But it contributes to this sense at film's end of not really knowing anything for sure.
Technically, J. Edgar is brilliant, slick and professional. Eastwood and co. faced quite the stylistic challenge in having to span several decades with the myriad changes in clothing and decor and so on. After I objected in John Madden's The Debt to that director's method of solving the thorny problem of his characters having to age 30 years on camera, I must tip my hat to Eastwood's use of makeup to allow Di Caprio to stay on screen throughout. This is a tricky business no matter how one goes about it, but I think Eastwood has found the best possible solution here. Di Caprio in old man makeup is a mite stiff (as is the really brilliant Armie Hammer as Hoover's chief advisor and largely unrequited paramour Clyde Tolson), but this is less distracting than using different actors.
A very worthy use of a couple hours of your life, but I was left wishing there was another hour or so to wrap things up.