Sunday, November 13, 2011

Citizen Hoover: 7 notes on Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar

As I sat amongst the elderly audience at my local cineplex, I could only focus on J. Edgar's problems even as I kept thinking of Richard Brody's appeal for critics to be careful with their glib judgments of this film. As he writes, "Most critics, myself included, lapse into the shoddy shorthand of our own pleasures when we feel constrained in space or time. But a substantial movie such as J. Edgar deserves better; it deserves a consideration of why Eastwood made it to become what it is." Yes, I agree, but still. Here are some of my issues with the film:

1) J. Edgar has so many correspondences with The Social Network, I couldn't help but wonder if Eastwood was emulating David Fincher. With Hammer appearing often as Hoover's trusted pseudo-love interest/right-hand man, I kept thinking that he's got one of the Winklevii brothers to add class to his Citizen Kane-esque tale of power and corruption. Aaron Sorkin's narrative tendency to skip back and forth in time worked well in The Social Network. The 2010 film's brew of billion-dollar lawsuits, Harvard undergraduate social climbing, and Zuckerberg's computer geek near-autistic detachment formed a compelling mix, in part because so much money was at stake even before you knew exactly how Zuckerberg earned it. In J. Edgar, a geeky but well-dressed career bureaucrat faces congressional criticism, multiple presidents trying to undermine his power, and a lifelong blocked urge to wear a dress. The future does not hang over the early years as dramatically. In The Social Network, no one ages all that much (the real Zuckerberg is still astonishingly only 27 years old), so no one has to focus on their makeup. Whereas Sorkin's screenplay uses the time shifting technique to disorient the viewer with its whip smart switchbacks, in J. Edgar writer Dustin Lance Black (of Milk) uses the same device to obfuscate and complicate an otherwise straightforward story.

2) J. Edgar begins with a shot of Hoover in his corpulent old age, a narrative maneuver that instantly made the movie less plausible. I couldn't suspend my disbelief that I was looking at actual old people given the familiarity of the movie stars in question. When the film jumps back and forth in time, having J. Edgar suddenly rejuvenated by 30 years with his second-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in the midst of an elevator ride quickly juxtaposed with their youthful lovers' quarrel, the shifting only highlights the problems of believability. We also see them soon afterward in advanced age as they watch the horse races (leaving the viewer saying "Man, how they've grown old together").

As much as anything, the film is a study in aging, but I could never believe in the transformation--Tolson nodding and looking enfeebled after a stroke, DiCaprio bent over and looking glum with his horned-rim glasses. As Hoover cracks open a soft-boiled egg with a fork, Armie Hammer looks disarmingly like David Bowie's aged-a-hundred-years-in-a-day vampire John in The Hunger (1983).

3) J. Edgar also has many correspondences to Citizen Kane (1941), another movie with a chopped-up timeline. (Jay Rober Nash's 1972 biography was entitled Citizen Hoover.) What do Kane and Hoover have in common? Both films feature ambivalent figures highly interested in controlling their public image. They both follow their rise to fame with late grumpy ironic corruption, but whereas Kane remains fundamentally inscrutable, Eastwood's Hoover keeps giving away his secrets (I found I preferred the mysterious and fragmented picture I had of the real-life Hoover to the explained one on the screen). So, [spoiler alert] after a lovers' spat with Tolson, Hoover says "I love you" under his breath (such cruel irony--Tolson doesn't hear him). Hoover didn't like to dance with women, so his domineering Ma Annie (Judi Dench), teaches him how in her bedroom. Annie's relationship with J. reminded me of Hitchcock's weirdness around his mother as he reported to her bedside with much Catholic guilt whenever he transgressed. Still, Kane retains a little potency and mystery as he walks past his hall of mirrors in Xanadu. Hoover rants against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also falls and weeps on the bedroom floor after putting on his mother's dress and pearls. It seems typical of Eastwood's and Black's methods to enhance that latter scene with anguished melodrama. Why couldn't they allow Hoover to enjoy his transvestism?

4) For decades, Hoover never changed his methods for holding on to power all that much. He is always the career-opportunist, finding ways to enhance his pet project, the FBI, with careful public relations marketing strategies (G-men promotion on Post Toasties cereal boxes) and proper fashion choices (tailored suits, 1950s tapered haircuts, no mustaches). In his superficial way, Hoover is nothing if not detail-oriented and efficient, but even with all of the self-loathing sexual repression going on, efficiency is rather dull to watch. Orson Welles masked some of the conventionalities of his story of one man's rise to world prominence with his charisma as an actor and his idiosyncratic film technique that, as Scorsese points out, calls the viewer's attention to the director's decisions behind the camera. In comparison, Eastwood's direction of J. Edgar is efficient but not as flashy.

5) At one point, Hoover claps a little too long after the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Richard Bruno Hauptmann was sentenced to death. Did Eastwood intend to draw a correlation between Hoover's carefully staged prosecution and Kane's attempt to use his propagandistic power to force the public to accept his second wife's Susan Alexander's opera career?

6) In the end, all of J. Edgar's allusions to The Social Network and Citizen Kane mostly betray how the later film would like to join the pantheon. In the process of having examined his career closely, J. Edgar ends up depicting a reduced figure henpecked by his own need to maintain appearances, hold on to power, and deny his affections. His mass of repressive symptoms are certainly dramatic, but I still prefer Billy Crudup's much briefer and more evocative version of Hoover in Public Enemies (2009).

7) Ultimately, the chief drawback of J. Edgar consists of the man himself. As the movie shifts back to the 1930s, Eastwood makes a point of showing reaction shots of audiences smirking and preferring gangster film heroes like James Cagney in Public Enemy to Hoover's public relations efforts to glorify the FBI. After watching 137 minutes of J. Edgar Hoover's fussy inadequacies, I can sympathize with the moviegoers.

12 comments:

Hokahey said...

Yep, I'm with you on this one. The puffy, pasty-white old-age makeup turned some of the scenes into ready-made parody. The stroke at the horse races was just a silly scene. I was mostly interested in the scenes in the farther past with the formation of the FBI and the Lindbergh case, but the film persisted in spending too much time with the old odd couple, and the old Naomi Watts, as well as with the cardboard portrayals of RFK and Tricky Dick.

FilmDr said...

Thanks, Hokahey,

Yes, that stroke scene is a perfect example of what I'm talking about. J. Edgar also suffers from that compressed feeling one gets from biopics and novels squeezed into film form (such as the recent Jane Eyre) where every scene has to lead to something significant. There can be no dallying, no sense of leisure. DiCaprio scarcely ever gets to lighten up. I prefer him in more relaxed, easy-going roles. Philip Seymour Hoffman would have suited J. Edgar better. DeCaprio just seemed to be doing everything in his power to look miserable.

Otherwise, the color was so washed out, the film might as well have been in black and white. The fashion sense struck me as Mad Men redux. Just as J. Edgar appeared hyper-anxious to maintain his power, so does the movie seem on needles and pins to keep its Oscar-bait status.

Craig said...

Always gotta love Brody's ceaseless appeals to authority, starting with the premise that we're dealing with a great director and must bow our heads and genuflect with respect rather than look directly at the screen.

FilmDr said...

Craig,

I was surprised by your characterization of Richard Brody as a "crashing bore" in your review of the Kael biography. I mostly know of Brody's work on his blog, and I liked his Godard book. His appeal intrigued me because I wonder how much one's reflexive glib snarkiness can become a problem when reviewing serious movies. It doesn't hurt to try to keep in mind Eastwood's purposes (not that I necessarily succeeded in that in my review).

Craig said...

Well, to each his own on Brody, like everyone else. Personally, I don't think there's enough glib snarkiness nowadays when addressing "serious" movies. That's why Kael was so indispensable. As she would say: "They think they deserve awards for serious intentions."

Jason Bellamy said...

I meant to mention it in my review, but the Cagney scenes are yet another clever way that this film suggests the massiveness of Hoover's reign: at first Cagney is playing one of the bad guys, and he's cheered by the crowd; later Cagney is playing one of the feds, because now they're the ones being romanticized.

That's the kind of stuff that made me enjoy J. Edgar much more than I thought I would. And I'm sure there's something to that. The trailer made the film look pathetic to me, and although I hadn't read any reviews I knew the buzz wasn't favorable, and, well, I've hated just about every Eastwood film of the past 15 years. So I had very low expectations. But while I'd cringe through certain scenes, I'd gladly watch this again; and, yeah, I'm kind of stunned to write that.

A few other thoughts ...

* Why couldn't they allow Hoover to enjoy his transvestism?

That's a very interesting question! The answer, I'm sure, is that they were trying to offset Hoover, to give his character something that he couldn't handle. It works as that; but it doesn't mean it's real. And it's interesting to wonder: If Hoover had been allowed to enjoy his "transvestism," wouldn't that then have played as another evil character trait, and thus wouldn't have that been un-PC? That might have had something to do with it, too.

* J. Edgar also suffers from that compressed feeling...

I can totally understand that argument, but it didn't feel compressed to me, mostly because of all the timeline jumping, which made it feel more like an examination of a man than of the man's history, if you understand my meaning.

* Otherwise, the color was so washed out, the film might as well have been in black and white.

Eastwood has been filtering the color on most of his films for years now. It's annoying. But the slate gray feel worked for me for this film (relatively speaking).

Jason Bellamy said...

One quick note on Brody: I don't read him enough to have an opinion. However, I did read his recent post on J Edgar and I found passages that resonated and, alas, just as many where I had no clue whatsoever what he was trying to tell me. (For example, there's no bad acting? Huh? What? Does that mean there's no good acting? And thus is there no acting? And is he advocating that we try to evaluate movies on some mathematical assessment of whether the director succeeded in his/her intent? Because if it's the latter, then shouldn't 50 percent of the movies today simply be evaluated by their box office intake?)

I need someone smarter to explain that post to me.

Craig said...

For example, there's no bad acting? Huh? What? Does that mean there's no good acting? And thus is there no acting? And is he advocating that we try to evaluate movies on some mathematical assessment of whether the director succeeded in his/her intent?

He's occupying the last refuge of the auteur: If something in a movie made by a great director is bad, then the director made it bad on purpose. I've heard this argument more times for more filmmakers than you might think, including most recently regarding the makeup job in "J. Edgar": It's Eastwood's symbol for Hoover's decay.

FilmDr said...

Thanks for your thoughts, Jason.

You are right about the way Hoover's public relations campaign shifted popular interest from the gangster to the G-man, but I didn't find it as compelling as you did. I try to imagine what drew Eastwood to this material--the way Hoover foreshadows our era's fascination with surveillance, the way public relations dominates our tail wagging-the-dog discourse, the nature of the entrenchment of bureaucracy over time, but I still couldn't get all that caught up in Hoover's story because of the film's problems with characterization, and the way DiCaprio's acting look strained and unnatural. When has DiCaprio ever had to live with the deprivations that defined Hoover's whole life?

When I asked why couldn't Hoover enjoy his transvestism, I was thinking of the film's gloomy veneer. Everything has to be made to look tragic, serious, intense. J. Edgar couldn't be an award-winning film otherwise.

Craig,

Thanks for your points about auteur-oriented criticism. Bad makeup is a "symbol for Hoover's decay?" That's astonishing. Who would write such a thing? I agree with you that Kael was especially good at exposing the pretensions of auteur-worship. I imagine that she would have had fun with J. Edgar.

Maurice Mitchell said...

Sounds like this film owes a debt to a lot of classic films.

FilmDr said...

I agree, Maurice. Any movie that makes so many overt references to classic films also runs the risk of looking like a cheap variation. The Social Network is good enough to legitimately invite comparison with Citizen Kane. J. Edgar isn't.

sheila kind said...

"I still couldn't get all that caught up in Hoover's story because of the film's problems with characterization, and the way DiCaprio's acting look strained and unnatural. When has DiCaprio ever had to live with the deprivations that defined Hoover's whole life?"

I think that's the point of DiCaprio's acting, whether you enjoyed it or not. Hoover was so repressed, straining so hard to hold back (who he really was) that this performance makes all the sense in the world to some of us. And when has any actor actually had to live with the deprivations defining any particular character's whole life? That's quite a nonsensical expectation as far as I'm concerned. On the other hand, I think what really interferes with critical response to films or any art form is that viewers have a set expectation before they even see it. It does take awhile for some things to settle and thought processes to peel away certain prejudices and/or biases or just to clarify. Many critics tend to write over what they just saw with what THEY wanted to see, which means they actually weren't looking very deeply at what was right in front of them.