I thought the previews and TV commercials for "J. Edgar" made it look even more unwatchable than those for "War Horse", but I'm open to being proven wrong.
What's interesting about the Hollywood Reporter review is that it was written by Todd McCarthy, formerly of Variety. For years, McCarthy has been a huge Clint booster and he could always be counted on for a rave review, and if it wasn't a rave, then it was at least as good a review as the movie was going to get. Nearly always, the reviewer at Hollywood Reporter would match his accolades, and since these were always among the first reviews, the pattern as of late would evolve from 'Clint has made another very fine movie' to 'there appears to be a disconnect between the print reviews and the online reviews' to 'It looks like this won't be a contender after all'. But now McCarthy's at HR, and - as I suspected - the film is not charging out of the gate so strongly, because the other trade reviews, although interesting, aren't so hot.
By Peter Debruge
J. Edgar Hoover's mystique lies in the fact that while he kept meticulous files with compromising details on some of America's most powerful figures, nobody knew the man's own secrets. Therefore, any movie in which the longtime FBI honcho features as the central character must supply some insight into what made him tick, or suffer from the reality that the Bureau's exploits were far more interesting than the bureaucrat who ran it -- a dilemma "J. Edgar" never rises above. With Leonardo DiCaprio bringing empathy to the controversial Washington power-monger, Clint Eastwood's old-school biopic should do solid midrange business.
In 1993, Anthony Summers published a tawdry expose titled "Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover," which aired Susan Rosenstiel's claim that she had witnessed Hoover, a lifelong bachelor who was seldom seen without trusted deputy Clyde Tolson, wearing a cocktail dress at a gay orgy in New York. Though never corroborated, the claim stuck, and the legacy of this much-feared public figure -- who served as FBI director under eight presidents, across 48 years and through some of the most trying cases of the 20th century -- is now dominated by associations with cross-dressing.
If the assumptions about his sex life are true, that would make "J. Edgar" the story of the highest-ranking homosexual in American history, produced by a major Hollywood studio and directed by one of the industry's most venerable directors -- hardly insignificant in an industry that goes to great lengths to obfuscate the sexuality of its own stars. While not exactly coy, Eastwood's classically styled look at Hoover's life takes a long time to arrive at questions of the character's proclivities. When it does get there, however, this new dimension of the character so enlivens what has been a mostly dry portrayal of one man's crusade to reform law enforcement that it becomes the pic's focus.
True to Eastwood's understated nature, "J. Edgar" offers the "tasteful" treatment of such potentially salacious subject matter, though a more outre Oliver Stone-like approach might have made for a livelier film. With the exception of a few profanities (enough to land the pic an audience-limiting R rating) and a lone homoerotic wrestling scene so tame that Ken Russell's "Women in Love" feels like an X by comparison, the film could pass for something Warners would have released in an earlier era -- earlier even than many of the events depicted onscreen, as suggested by Tom Stern's cinematography, desaturated nearly to black-and-white.
Eastwood's restraint applies to not only the kid-gloves depiction of how Hoover slyly manipulated politicos and press, including a loathsome attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into declining the Nobel Peace Prize, but also to his oddly nonjudgmental approach to Hoover's sexual identity, depicting him as a man too Puritanical to pursue intimacy with someone of either gender.
As he did with "Milk," screenwriter Dustin Lance Black follows the print-the-legend philosophy, building to what could have been the ultimate tragic love story between two men: Johnny and Clyde (as Truman Capote dubbed Hoover and Tolson), companions for the better part of five decades who never had the chance to express their affection -- a consequence of Hoover's insistence that FBI employees live up to the strictest code of conduct (he wouldn't even allow them to drink coffee on the job).
The opening reel establishes both the scope of the story, which ranges from Hoover's 20s to his final days overseeing the FBI at age 77, and DiCaprio's remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes. There's an innate kindliness to DiCaprio that makes for a more likable protagonist than Hoover as the tempestuous monster so many biographers describe, which is good news for the film's commercial prospects but seemingly at odds with reality.
Surely this can't be the glory hound who collaborated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy on his anti-communist witch hunt and called King "the most notorious liar in the country," nor the same FBI chief accused of racism (the Bureau antagonized civil-rights leaders and employed few blacks), homophobia (gays were dismissed from service) and sexism (women were allowed to serve as secretaries and assistants, but never agents).
Rather than seriously engaging with any of these common accusations, Black's script skips back and forth through Hoover's CV, alternating public grandstanding with invented insights into his private life. Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) exerts enormous control over her son's personality, telling him, "I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," in the film's most chilling scene. Tolson (Armie Hammer), whose prissiness accounts for the film's scant laughs, also surfaces early, lurking behind the frosted-glass door to an adjoining office while Hoover dictates a self-aggrandizing book.
Considering how critical any other character's perspective might be, allowing Hoover to narrate his own story comes as a generous gift from Black. Hoover's voiceover gives form to a story that starts out as an institutionally approved version of how the FBI came to be, punctuated every so often by a high-profile arrest or newfangled forensic development (an investigation into the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's son supplies the sort of procedural intrigue that comes comfortably to Eastwood). As the pic progresses, however, Hoover's words grow increasingly defensive, and the episodes drift into far more personal territory.
Since you can't put a face on the love interest in a workaholic's story, Black must manufacture romance on the margins. In the first act, Hoover briefly courts Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), an office girl who declines his marriage proposal on their third date, but agrees to become his secretary. A short time later, Hoover meets Tolson in a scene staged to suggest love at first sight.
As written, Tolson's character is clearly gay, but Eastwood seems noncommittal about Hoover. Certainly there are clues in nearly every aspect of the production, from Deborah Hopper's ever-dapper wardrobe to the meticulously appointed sets overseen by James Murakami and decorated by Gary Fettis. At one point, auds catch a glimpse of the entry stairwell to Hoover's home, where a framed portrait of his mother hangs alone. What's missing from this picture? Why, the famous nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that hung in the real-life Hoover's hallway.
4 November, 2011 | By Mike Goodridge
Dir: Clint Eastwood. US. 2011. 137mins
Clint Eastwood’s latest film, a portrait of the controversial FBI founder and chieftain J Edgar Hoover, is both admirable and frustrating, a murky muddle of selective historical moments which comes alive when its compelling human story of sexual repression and dedicated love is at the forefront. Its biggest achievement is to look at recent US history through a personal and distinctively gay lens. In fact, Eastwood delivers the most un-self-conscious depiction of a gay relationship in a mainstream studio movie to date, although gay rights activists will hardly be looking to promote J Edgar Hoover as any sort of role model.
Box office prospects are solid. The combined megawattage of Eastwood and his star Leonardo DiCaprio giving a bravura performance that will inevitably win him an Oscar nomination should make it a must-see movie for an older adult crowd, especially in the US. International prospects are less exciting, bearing in mind the distinctly Americo-centricity of the character and the story.
As scripted by Dustin Lance Black, the gay writer who won an Oscar for Milk, J Edgar is very much a look at the man raised by a devoted but domineering mother who struggles with his homosexuality, yet finds a loyal partner in Clyde Tolson, a young buck he nurtures as his closest colleague and lover.
Yes, we also see Hoover as crime-fighting pioneer, PR genius and manipulator, as fame-hungry tyrant and reinventor of history. But the script doesn’t delve too deeply into the darker side of Hoover, who essentially engineered the ugly McCarthy witchhunts and rewrote the rules in surveillance and invasion of privacy.
No, the script requires Hoover to be damaged, somewhat human and not utterly odious. He has to be engaging enough to command the unwavering loyalty of Tolson (played with superb sensitivity by Armie Hammer) and secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and, after all, it was his passion for the evolution of forensic science and identification by fingerprinting which changed the face of law enforcement forever.
The film sketches his early life starting in the Bureau Of Investigation in 1919, being named its director in 1924 and then forming the Federal Bureau Of Investigation in 1935 where he reigned through eight presidencies to his death in 1972.
It covers his battles in the thirties with the Depression-era gangsters with the likes of John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, his passionate and violent suppression of communists and radicals, and dwells in particular on the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s son in 1932 and the arrest four years later, after an exhaustive investigation, of Bruno Hauptmann.
Throughout these episodes, it skips forward 30 years to the 1960s – to Hoover’s relationship with the Kennedys, his contempt for Martin Luther King and the arrival on the picture of Richard Nixon before whose downfall he dies. One of the biggest hurdles for audiences in these extensive sequences is the use of heavy prosthetic makeup on DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts. The makeup may be excellent, but the audience awareness of the illusion can be distracting.
The film’s first hour is problematic and somewhat turgid. Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern decided to shoot in grim desaturated colours and make use of heavy shadows, which hardly helps a muddy narrative that takes a while to cohere.
But in the second hour, Eastwood does what he does so well which is to focus on the characters. The scenes stretch longer and there are some exceptional moments – when Hoover’s mother (Dench) tells him that she would not accept a gay son (“a daffodil”), when Hoover tells Tolson that he plans to marry film star Dorothy Lamour, when Tolson tells Hoover that he should resign with his legacy intact, when Hoover breaks down after his mother’s death and when Tolson arrives at Hoover’s house when he has died.
Indeed, as always, when Eastwood turns his compassionate eye onto the frailties and emotions of his characters, the film flies and reminds us why he remains one of the world’s most vital filmmakers. It’s hard not to tear up when Tolson sobs over Hoover’s body, but Eastwood isn’t making us cry about Hoover in particular. Ever the humanist, he is merely showing one man crying for the loss of his lifelong love.
"What the hell?"