Tuesday, December 6, 2011
Clint Eastwood has made some great movies, like THE UNFORGIVEN, and some flawed but still good ones, like GRAN TORINO. But for me, J. EDGAR is neither. Don't get me wrong, there's things about this movie that are great, or flawed but still good. There are also things that are pretty weak, even bad, for my taste.
It's way more ambitious than most of his films (except for the two about the battle for Iwo Jima, mini-masterpieces to me), with many more scenes and settings than he usually has in his films. Clint's the master of the minimal, minimal dialogue in the scripts he chooses or cuts that way, minimal gestures as an actor, minimal scenes and camera set ups, even minimal casts. And the music he often composes for his films is minimally intrusive, usually no grand orchestra movie soundtrack overcompensating.
But for J. EDGAR, Eastwood is only minimal in offering any dramatic explanations for why this guy was as creepy as he was and did so much damage to our country during his half century of power. In everything else about the film, Eastwood's maximal. It's a big cast with I would guess more minor roles than almost any of his other movies.
He tries to cover over sixty years in Hoover's life and profession, as well as the contemporaneous history that Hoover's trying to control and does too often. And that presents a problem. I was hired to write a screenplay for Otis Redding's life story back in my Hollywood days, and thought I'd given them a pretty good one, but the studio heads changed by the time I finished it and the new guy wanted it entirely different to put his stamp on it. And then it never got made.
So I know how difficult it is to do a biopic. It starts with the writing, and in this case, Dustin Lance Black, who wrote MILK was the writer, and I wasn't crazy about that sprawling portrait of a man's life either. Both films have some of the same problems: moments of emotional connection, separated by scenes that seem either arbitrary or expository with little or no connection to the rest of the film and its characters (the movie about the great Irish hero, Michael Collins, had the same problem, as do many biopics).
So I wasn't crazy about the story. It depended on many stock bio tricks that I would have liked to have seen Clint resist. Judi Dench does her usual great acting, but in the service of the cliched monster mother, whose scenes with her son seem to be positing that it's all her fault he turned out to be such a cretin.
But at least her character has a clear connection with Leonardo DiCaprio's "J. Edgar" that makes at least cliched sense, unlike Naomi Watts' "Helen Gandy"—Hoover's career long loyal secretary who kept his secrets to the grave. Why she was so attached to him is never evident dramatically, she just is okay?
The standout performance may be Armie Hammer's (he almost stole SOCIAL NETWORK playing two privileged twins) as "Clyde Tolson"—Hoover's loyal second-in-command who shared Hoover's life so completely it has always been assumed they were lovers. The movie is not definitive on that score, though it offers up some contrived, to me, scenes that no one could possibly know about to demonstrate the connection they had. But again with no evident reason for it.
DiCaprio makes his usual strenuous effort to portray the character he's been hired to portray, but as so often happens in his films, at least from my perspective, he's miscast. His face, even when covered with make-up tricks to make him look a little more like Hoover, still betrays that boyish cuteness that makes it pretty impossible for me to buy him as the kind of men who seem to have been born old, like Howard Hughes or J. Edgar Hoover.
And the latter, of course, looked like a miniature bulldog, a very old miniature bulldog. There are other actors who do nice work, my old friend Michael O'Neill as Senator McKellar in a scene where he drills Hoover at a hearing, and Christopher Skyer gets Nixon so right, he should be cast immediately in a movie about maybe our most diabolical president.
As always, the music is one of the best things about the film, and like I said, there's other things to dig about it. But in the end it fudges or skips over some of the worst aspects of Hoover's seemingly endless grip on unelected power, while making the insidiousness of the man seem at times justified or almost sympathetic. But Hoover was a pathetic, hypocritical, lying, chicken-hearted blight on what our democracy aspires to and our Constitution stands for, and though the movie alludes to all that, it seems to be trying to soft sell it, the way I see it.
So, it wasn't the movie I'd like to have seen on this subject. Maybe you'll feel differently.