Margaret Thatcher was prime minister for much of my childhood, although by the time I was aware of the world enough to be aware of politics I was already living in the U.S. To some extent, in my mind she’ll always be prime minister, just because she was around for such a long time when I was young (although oddly my default mental image of the American president is Bill Clinton).
And so I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be looking at The Iron Lady on some Movie Monday, even though a) it’s weird to think of parts of my own lifetime as “history” and b) I was not particularly excited about seeing it. In fact, I put off watching it for over a week when it arrived, in the same way that I have put off watching 12 Years a Slave. Too depressing. But let’s get to it now.
Margaret Thatcher was still alive when they made this thing, by the way, but clearly on her way out.
So, I’ve said that I thought I would find the movie too depressing, which I didn’t. What I wasn’t expecting was to find it … well, dull. It’s very well made. Meryl Streep is great, of course, very convincing, very versatile, tough and weird and vulnerable. Jim Broadbent is good as Denis as well, but, y’know. Jim Broadbent. But there’s this whole framing-narrative device about Thatcher talking to the imaginary ghost of her husband, and I’m just not sure it goes anywhere in particular. It humanises her, but not in a way particularly relevant to the plot. Broadbent gets a certain amount of exposition, I guess.
I am not a historian of the period, so I can’t tell you about accuracy other than in outline, but at that level it seems to be more or less on point, although it’s primarily concerned with the personal effects of the various political crises rather than their overall social context. We hear Thatcher say a lot about how things in the country are much better, but very little of the film takes place outside the corridors of power. There is a lot of rumty-tum patriotic music during the Falklands War, although honestly I think it’s just meant to show how tense and serious everything is for her.
Maybe it’s that that makes it so curiously flat. Like a good, responsible Hollywood biopic it wants to portray its subject ambiguously. But most people don’t have ambiguous feelings about Mrs Thatcher; they think of her either as The Iron Lady or as Satan J. Devilface. That’s whatcha call a “polarising figure,” I guess.
(Although I suppose even some people who fall into the Devilface camp might find her story interesting on a personal level, in the same way one might want to know how a famous criminal got that way.)
And it’s interesting and even has some OK jokes. But it’s just Incidents from the Life of the Celebrated Mrs Thatcher. It’s well–executed, but ultimately it feels a little pointless. Streep kills it, but … to what end?
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.