Saturday, November 12, 2011

Private Fears, Public Places: J. EDGAR

J. Edgar Hoover was the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 48 years, from the dawn of Prohibition to the early years of the Nixon administration. J. Edgar, the patient new film from Clint Eastwood, with drained color that makes the events appear as if shot through a haze of memory, opens with Hoover as an old man, dictating his autobiography to an underling. Moving further into the past, the film looks at the early days of Hoover’s career, slipping back into the film’s present of his later days for juxtapositions and clarity. It’s a film that is covertly about the failures of memory and persona, quietly setting up reasons why the way Hoover tells it may not be the way it was. It’s a film about the young man’s career, about how early single-mindedness led to early and lasting success that pivots around the old man, quietly leaving behind a controversial legacy.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover across the long sweep of the decades. It’s a mannered performance, and not always a convincing one, but it plays to Eastwood’s restrained style. It’s clear that Hoover is a tortured, sad man, warped by the expectations of his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and society, driven to hide his own inner feelings, which only serves to trouble him more. His deepest fears and urges are deeply buried, yet he seems to carry them as a weight around his neck. Unable to find security in his own thoughts, he sought to control the behavior and appearance of those around him, telling FBI agents to buy new suits, shave, and exercise. From his position of power, he felt driven to attempt to impose his own tight constrictions of moral and philosophical obligations on society as a whole. He valued loyalty. He valued trust. Yet he rarely reciprocated such qualities.

When the film sways away from Hoover’s career, it finds much of interest in the two main personal relationships in his life. Early in the film, we see him come into contact with a member of the Bureau’s secretarial pool, one Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). After going on three dates, he proposes to her after hours in the Library of Congress. She turns him down, but accepts a secondary offer to become his personal secretary. There is a mutual respect between them, a friendship and a trust. But theirs is not a physical relationship, nor is it one of apparent desire of any kind. When Hoover proposes marriage, it is with the brisk formal tone of a business proposal. He may not love her, but he likes her enough to have something like it. He thinks she’s of “good character.” Getting married would be the right thing to do. Instead, he hired a loyal, lifelong, employee.

The other major relationship in his life, according to the film, is one Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). They were practically inseparable. Hoover made him his second in command. Clyde stood by his side in countless meetings. He helped him buy suits and ties. They dined together. They went out on the town together. They vacationed together. The cared very much for each other, but the film makes it clear that it was never quite love, at least not in an easily externalized way. And yet, this part of the film feels to me like a particularly tragic love story. There is love between them, yet some combination of societal and maternal expectation prevented its fullest expression. The emotions Hoover felt for Clyde were so buried and repressed that it contributed to that weight that he carried with him, crushed his personality down so that it could only harden, and make him more determined to appear to the public as the man he wanted to be.

This is a complex film that covers many events, juggling back and forth in time. At times this approach feels a bit sloppy and confusing, choking off momentum. But what is occasionally lost in clarity is made up for in the understated yet omnipresent sadness, and the sharp pangs of echoes and reverberations caused by the juxtapositions. The film includes Hoover drastically increasing the power of the Bureau, beginning with what he feels is the Bolshevik revolution arriving on American shores, than continuing his ascent by leading programs to fight gangsters and investigate the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. His methods were not always strictly scrupulous. In his later years, we see him increasingly concerned with his secret files, his wiretaps, and his blackmailing material that he began gathering those many years ago.

We see a great deal of the man, yet the film naturally leaves a great deal out. There is still the central mystery of who he is. The screenplay is by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for 2008’s Milk, a bio-pic about the first openly gay politician elected in America. J. Edgar is not an open film, nor is it even, despite one of the central implications, a film about a gay man. It’s a film that is closed off and secretive. We can only speculate as to who the man was. He left behind only clues. His contemporaries left behind only rumors.

Eastwood brings to the film his soft, quiet approach to drama, his low-key pacing, and the ways in which actors are given the space to breathe. (That is, when they aren’t locked in layers of old-age makeup). Certainly, the film can rarely be considered flawless. You could call it rather formless at times and the necessary elision of the middle of Hoover’s career nonetheless leaves behind some questions.  But there’s just enough to appreciate here. J. Edgar is an interesting film about an interesting man. It manages to make him a tragic figure, to render his inner life with a fair amount of sympathy without once ever condoning the real poisonous paranoia he brought to his office. It's a quiet drama of inner turmoil and the political made personal.

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