Movie Monday: J. Edgar (2011)

Leonardo DiCaprio reprises his role as Shouty Office Man from The Aviator (that's unfair; he doesn't really).
Leonardo DiCaprio reprises his role as Shouty Office Man from The Aviator (that’s unfair; he doesn’t really).

Ah, the start of a new year. Back to school, back to work, back to the gym, back to watching high-minded movies of serious historical import for the blog. And actually our first one is a high-minded etc., just because if I watch another sprawling Chinese historical epic I may lose my mind and I couldn’t bear to leave the house watch Exodus.

So anyway, Clint Eastwood is going to tackle the life of J. Edgar Hoover by putting Leonardo DiCaprio in a ton and a half of age makeup and imagining that in the past people sat in darkened rooms a lot. I watched this on Amazon, so it’s totally possible that the rich textures of the setting came out better on the big screen, but on television it was just dark as hell.

I’m not going to go into the details of the film per se — basically it has a framing narrative involving Hoover’s famous “secret files” and his desire to set the record straight about his, er, record. Right at the start the film signals us that we’re getting Hoover’s version of events in some cases, and that it’s not always going to be accurate. We’re left to wonder — intentionally — whether Hoover is just being forgetful, lying, or sincerely believing a warped version of events.

When you’re making a film of the life of someone who came to prominence as a crimefighter, you have to balance the cop-movie and biography elements of it, which Eastwood does pretty well. The most mystery-y part of the story is the section on the Lindbergh case, which is a simplified but pretty solidly accurate telling of the story. There are a lot of good bits where people mock Hoover’s belief in fingerprints as some kind of weird pseudoscientific obsession, and kind of an interesting theme where you get the impression that old-fashioned cops tend to view Hoover’s scientific, bureaucratic methods as kind of sissy. CSI: 1932 would be kind of a fun show, or at least a miniseries.

But that’s not what we came for, which is a shame because it’s pretty good. We came for the sinister machinations and the sex stuff!

I went into the film not knowing very much about Hoover other than the basics — American history isn’t really my strong point, so I mostly know what I did in school and what I’ve read up on since — and I wondered how Eastwood was going to address what I understood to be the relatively well-accepted idea that Hoover cross-dressed. So I Googled it, and it turns out that there is next to no evidence for the idea at all; someone said so once is pretty much the size of it. Eastwood works it in as a manifestation of Hoover’s grief following the death of his (controlling, godawful) mother (Judi Dench).

Likewise, Hoover’s repressed, tortured love affair with his sidekick Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is one of those things where the historical evidence is conflicted. Were Hoover and Tolson lovers, or was it just another era, when two unmarried guys could live together, vacation together and spend pretty much every waking moment together in a totally hetero way? Eastwood splits the difference, painting Hoover as someone who can’t overcome his mother’s homophobia enough to accept that he’s in love with Clyde but also can’t bear to be apart from him. The whole thing is really sad and awkward and lonely; Eastwood and DiCaprio never shy away from portraying Hoover as a profoundly uncomfortable and unhappy person and also a vain, power-hungry, petty, vicious little son of a bitch.

I wondered why, given the scanty evidence on the wearing-women’s-clothes front, it was so much a thing in the mythology of “Gay Edgar Hoover.” Maybe it’s just that it’s funny to imagine the guardian of law and order — especially a fat, humourless little guardian of law and order like Hoover — with a string of pearls, like it’s fun to imagine any authority figure as a hypocrite. Maybe it’s just another manifestation of societal prejudices of that (and this) era.

But maybe it’s also part of a desire to see Hoover as something that has to be explained? Like, there’s a certain amount of “J. Edgar Hoover: How the hell did that happen?” thinking on display in the way that a lot of people talk about Hoover, and of course in the very fact that this film got made. How did this maniac wind up running America’s most prestigious law enforcement agency — hell, creating that agency? How did subsequent administrations let him get away with ignoring organised crime, building up this cult of personality, using the machinery of the state to fuck with people he personally didn’t like?

That’s American exceptionalism in a nutshell, isn’t it, the idea that J. Edgar Hoover was some kind of weird aberration? I mean, consider the following statements:

  • “A smart, motivated civil servant gets permission to reform and expand his department after some initial successes. Subsequently, he runs it like a personal fief.”
  • “Even the President thinks twice before crossing the head of the secret police.”

The second one wouldn’t raise an eyebrow in easily more than half of the countries on earth, and the first one is just kind of a general truism about how organisations work. But Hoover has to be a mythic figure rather than a guy who seen his opportunities and took ’em because …

… because … ?

I can’t think of a reason other than “because this is America, dammit! That kind of thing happens in other countries!” unless it’s “because we find it convenient to hang the blame for decades of state repression on one bad apple” or at least “well, yeah, with hindsight SCLC weren’t terrorists, but it was a different time.”

This is particularly jarring to me since the bulk of Hoover’s critics, who bring up the idea that he was some kind of kinky, are, y’know, leftists or progressives and therefore should probably not be trying to use the man’s private life to shame him. (“Oh but he was a hypocrite!” “Is that really the worst thing you can think of to say about this motherfucker?”)

What? Oh, the movie! Yeah, it’s OK. It’s kind of aimless, which is what any good biography should be like in parts. I mean, there’s some attempt to build up a conflict that can be resolved, partly with the secret files and partly with the Clyde thing, but mostly he is young, he gets old, he dies. That is what happened in his life. The age makeup is juuuuust good enough to be super jarring and creepy and distracting. Naomi Watts is Hoover’s other sidekick, Helen Gandy. The Presidents and Martin Luther King are offscreen a lot. Clint Eastwood’s a good director, but this isn’t Gran Torino. I enjoyed watching it, but I’m never going to watch it again. Mind you, the same is true for Gran Torino but for completely different reasons.

So yeah; it was not bad; it had the usual compression of time and characters but nothing too wacky; age makeup is weird. Modern history movies tend to be so serious and event-y; by contrast, I seem to specialise in one of the corny adventure movie eras. Currently I’m OK with that.

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Movie Monday: J. Edgar (2011)

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