Monday, November 14, 2011

J Edgar Whozits

One of my outré positions is that the Federal Bureau of Investigation doesn't really have a right to exist under the Constitution, and that J. Edgar Hoover was an evil little troll who was a horrible influence on this country.

So, yeah, Eastwood does a biopic of J. Edgar? Why not.

Let me say, first, that this is classic Eastwood (as director): Much like last year's Hereafter or (say) Million Dollar Baby, the octogenarian auteur is all about telling the story, whatever it is. And, in this case, the story is about an ambitious, vainglorious, sexually repressed blackmailer (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he tells the story on the one hand of the history of the FBI, and how, at the end of his life (as blackmailer in chief), he is threatened by the incoming President Nixon on the other.

I can't help but admire the direction, which is unflinching and unsentimental. He doesn't demonize Hoover—who could arguably benefit from a demonization—but he portrays him gathering his blackmail and expanding his powers, good intentions cheerfully in tow.

And yet. It's not a great movie, and I'm inclined to blame screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. If Tim Burton has daddy issues, and Alfred Hitchcock had issues with being falsely accused, Mr. Black has gay issues.

Actually, before I get to those, I want to also say that it seems like everyone has some issues when it comes to this movie. I read quite a few reviews of this beforehand (which I don't normally) at places like Big Hollywood and PJMedia and I'm not convinced we all saw the same movie.

For example, I read a reference to Hoover's mother, as played by Judi Dench, as domineering, which feeds into the clichéd gay thing, But that really reduces the role to a cartoonish level that isn't warranted. Dench's portrayal is stern and forbidding, but not domineering.

Likewise, getting back into the gay thing, Hoover is (at least initially) portrayed as a complex person, or perhaps if you prefer, a very simple person for whom sex (in whatever form) isn't on the menu. Sex is only going to be permissible if it's of a non-blackmail-able variety, is sort the impression you get.

But then Black goes whole hog (as it were) into "Hoover was a homosexual but refused to act on it." I'm of two minds as far as this goes: One, it's a completely hack and stereotyped way to indulge in a little fantasy; and two, it has the effect of humanizing Hoover in a very unlikely way, a way that makes the movie rather more watchable.

I think there's a little truth to both these ideas, but it also has a couple of other effects: One is that it's complete fantasy. I don't mean Hoover wasn't gay, 'cause I don't know. (I'd always heard he was a transvestite, though, and TVs are usually men—often macho men. But on reflection, it seems unlikely that the king of the blackmailers would ever put himself in a compromising situation.) What I mean is that the completely undocumented aspect of his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) gives Black free reign to do this sort of wish-fulfillment thing.

This includes a scene where Hoover and Tolson (Armie Hammer) virtually swish over the gaucheness of Desi Arnaz and Lucille Ball at Del mar, and Tolson describes Dorothy Lamour as "camp". (That's not the only time that the dialog assaults the ear with a too modern sound, but it's one of the most egregious ones.)

The other effect of this, though, is that we're sort of mired in this (ultimately trivial) aspect of Hoover's life. This is the problem with the modern obsession with private details: The real story gets crowded out. This is sometimes justifiable, say, with something like The King's Speech (another largely fictitious but far more interesting movie).

But here, it doesn't matter that Hoover is gay (at least partially evinced by the fact that he probably wasn't). It could have been just as interesting to see him as bottled up, and tested by his attraction to Dorothy Lamour (who claimed to have an affair with him).

And it's not like there isn't 50 years of interesting dirt about Hoover, you know? The whole thread feels self-indulgent.

It's a flawed biopic. The acting is good. I think Dicaprio—who normally leaves me kind of cold—did one of his better jobs here. A lot of criticism has been leveled at the old age makeup, and it's got some validity to it, but I kind of register that as a big "so what"? Old age makeup is always bad, and always has been.

I would have preferred to see more actual FBI stuff. The fact that the FBI got their guns as a result of the Lindbergh kidnapping perhaps beginning the precedent that states that all laws named after children are bad ones.

HBO did a movie a few years back on the Lindbergh kidnapping which took the point-of-view that Hauptmann was innocent of the charges, whereas this movie posits that he didn't act alone—that he was maybe a patsy for the real criminals. Sorta. He's essentially a vehicle for the bureau's expansion of power.

Then there's the whole FBI rising while denying the existence of the mafia. What up wid dat? I mean, seriously, if you're going to go into fantasy-land about the story, how about bringing in the mafia? As a character study, wouldn't it have been more interesting to know (or speculate) on whether it was pride, arrogance, stupidity or something else causing Hoover's complete bungling of the major crime issue of his day?

Ah, well, lost opportunity. Also, keep in mind that my review isn't much like any of the others I've read, so maybe I saw a different movie from the ones other people saw, or the one you'd see.

As an Eastwood fan since Flags of our Fathers, The Boy was a bit disappointed, and found it overlong, though not especially so for a biopic. As someone more-or-less ignorant of the politics and history, his experience viewing the movie was probably one of the purer ones, and he rated it "so-so".


  1. If you want to read an interesting take on the Lindbergh kidnapping get Max Allen Collens book called "Stolen Away."

    It is in the Nathan Heller series of detective novels and is a great period piece. I think it would make a great movie although I think there already is one with that title.

  2. I have long studied Hoover and I can't
    wait to see it on demand. I think it is quite likely that he was gay and of course the famous rumor is that Frank Costello had a photo of him in a dress.

    Nowadays with Photoshop you could have a photo like that about everybody.

  3. We saw it and found it to be OK. It was a good story, well acted and directed but for us.there was absolutely no connection with any of the main characters.

    Wait for on demand.

  4. Thanks for this review, Blake. It's a whole lot more informative than the letter grades, haikus and purple prose given out by Sean Burns and sometimes even Sam Adams at the Philly Weekly and A.O. Scott/Manohla Dargis at NYT are too fixated on making their own critiques pieces of art in themselves to really give me a solid idea of what makes a movie worth seeing or not.

  5. Nice review. I'll wait for the DVD. Eastwood always bores me when he tackles history.

    As for Hoover, I've tried to read an honest/balanced Biography of him but found it almost impossible. Most of them seem to be written by liberals with an ax to grind or by friends/subordinates of Hoover.

    Its like trying find a good bio of Joe McCarthy.

    The whole Hoover = Gay rumor was started by the KGB, which doesn't mean its untrue. But its nice to know being Gay is now a good thing.

  6. rc --

    True dat about finding a good bio about certain people or time periods.

    Ritmo --

    Thanks, dude, that's exactly what I'm going for. If you get an idea of what the experience is like, you have an idea whether you want to see the movie whether you agree with my opinion about it or not.

    Troop --

    Thanks for the book recc. The thing about Hoover being gay is that it doesn't matter. The guy was a titan.

    Putting this stuff in the movie is like taking an epic story of a band of adventurers out to save the world and inserting a love story in it. kaffLOTRkaff


Grab an umbrella. Unleash hell. Your mileage may vary. Results not typical. If swelling continues past four hours, consult a physician.