A lesson is how to do everything wrong

J. Edgar is a lesson is how to do everything wrong. My review is here, and here.

As 20th century American politicians go, J. Edgar Hoover is tied with Richard Nixon on the evil-o-meter. Only Joe McCarthy beats them. A megalomaniacal red-baiter who destroyed countless lives and probably made the United States no less secure for the trouble, McCarthy had no redeeming qualities. Hoover and Nixon – both craven, cynical and paranoid – were, as it happens, also rather efficient civil servants.

Nixon helped create the Environmental Protection Agency, orchestrated détente with China and continued Kennedy and Johnson’s push for civil rights. And Hoover basically invented the FBI as we know it. In his 48 years running it, Hoover transformed the bureau from an unarmed, ad hoc mini-division of the Justice Department into the enormous, hugely powerful, mostly do-good crime-fighting machine it is today.

But as Nixon had Vietnam and Watergate, Hoover spent decades stomping on civil liberties, breaking laws in petty revenge schemes and blackmailing politicians to protect his fiefdom and get his way. And he was probably gay, making him yet another queer historical figure we don’t want to claim (like Ernst Röhm, Roy Cohn, and President James Buchanan). Many people, me included, were surprised when Oliver Stone presented Tricky Dick as a complicated, misunderstood man in 1995’s Nixon; and I think there will be similar reactions to Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black’s sympathetic portrait of Hoover in J. Edgar. The main difference here is that Nixon was a pretty good movie, and aside from Leonardo DiCaprio’s stirring physical transformation into the late FBI director, J. Edgar is somewhat of a slog.

I was surprised, because Clint Eastwood is American film’s great living formalist. He is famous for his efficient direction, for not doing too many takes or tricking his actors into unexpected emotions. He doesn’t do the visual and editing tricks of Stone, Scorsese, Spielberg, Fincher or Van Sant. His calmly old-fashioned, straight-forward direction is impeccably perfect for self-contained stories likeUnforgiven, Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. But when it comes to the sprawling story of Hoover – which covers more than five decades, multiple aging characters and complex political and personal machinations – Eastwood’s style is ill-fitting. I kept waiting to be surprised or moved, but instead I got a history lesson; the movie was just too staid, too pedantic and too safe.

Black’s screenplay is greatly at fault. Structurally, it takes the most clichéd approach. In the late 1960s, Hoover is dictating the story of the FBI to a series of junior agents (including, bizarrely, Gossip Girl’s Ed Westwick), and the tales become undated flashbacks. The flashbacks extend into Hoover’s personal life, which we must assume he’s not telling anyone at the FBI about, because this includes his creepy relationship with his mother (Dame Judi Dench) and his less creepy, but much less clear relationship with his deputy and sidekick, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The sprawl of the story includes major subplots on the Lindbergh kidnapping, infighting with Bobby Kennedy and the loyalty of his long-time assistant, Helen Gandy, played by a criminally underutilized Naomi Watts.

But what is connecting all of this? What is the psychological, emotional or historical thread that tells us what made Hoover tick? It’s never clear. We don’t get Hearst’s Rosebud like in Citizen Kane or Harvey Milk’s deep sense of justice and optimism like in Black’s most excellent script for Milk. It’s almost as if Black didn’t want to take a stand. As to whether or not Hoover was gay, or whether the rumors of his cross-dressing were true, he manages to take the dull, middle road. Stone, for whatever his failings, always took the risk and took a stand. Even if JFK and Nixon weren’t accurate, they were entertaining.

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer
Rated R
At your local multiplex

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