The Home of Steven Barnes
Author, Teacher, Screenwriter

Monday, November 21, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

The new Clint Eastwood-directed, Leonardo DiCaprio-starring biopic of the late creator and director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is a "close but no cigar" proposition. It wants to be great, it flirts with greatness, but ultimately Eastwood's respect for his subject subvert growing thematic thread, and steals critical emotional juice from the film.

On the one level, "J. Edgar" is the respectful story of a man obsessed with protecting his country and his legacy, building a modern crime-fighting instrument at a time when the Tommy gun was the ultimate tool of both law-breaking and law-enforcement. He served through eight administrations and was clearly a brilliant and brittle man, canny at self-promotion, who shaped our country's attitudes about Communism, crime, civil rights, and more. Perfectly capable of bending or breaking laws to fulfill his chosen purpose, whether he was a "good" or "bad" man depends partially on one's own political persuasion, and view of human nature.

(slight spoilers ahead)

On the other hand, the film is virtually a gay love story between Hoover and Clyde Tolson, employee and companion for decades, and, so suggests the filmmakers, a relationship never quite consummated: Tolson would have been all for it, Hoover was too inhibited to quite set himself free to follow his heart.

There are two directions this could have gone in: either fully allowing Hoover his sexual expression, or specifically investigating the conflict of a man supporting a social value structure that denied him his own humanity. Either would have been fascinating, but probably still too dangerous, thirty years after his death. Says something about the man's power.

The fabled Hoover Files, filled with blackmail material on the high and mighty, could easily be seen as preemptive protection against being outed, and ousted, for his sexual proclivities. There's a thread that could have been strengthened. And his obsession with Martin Luther King's sex life would have been more deeply investigated, as jealousy for a man who would not be blackmailed (Hoover is presented as threatening MLK with exposure if he accepts the Nobel Peace Prize) away from his chosen path. There's a thread. Could have been powerful as hell, and they flirt with it but don't really pull it.

But no matter which way they went, clearly this aspect of the man was of critical importance to understanding him. Whether gay, straight or asexual, there is no way this aspect was of "null" impact on his world view and behavior. Personally, I think there is no reason not to assume he was gay, and that all protests against the idea are simply relics of a time such behavior was considered derogatory. But if it has no more "good" or "evil", "right" or "wrong" connotation than whether you like tacos or hot dogs (so to speak) then it becomes torturous to construct a personality void of sexual expression. In my opinion.

But in that case, there is a major omission. At one point, they imply strongly that Hoover had been dating, and having an affair with, actress Dorothy Lamour (the "Road" movies). And all they do is TALK about that. Excuse me? No matter how you slice that one, that's something we should have seen, not heard about. It's flat absurd not to show us his interaction, even if they left certain details artfully or discreetly vague.

Strange. This creation of a thematic thread (denial of identity leading to psychological or social dysfunction and obsessive-compulsive behavior) could be viewed as a "Hero's Journey" model:

1) Hero Confronted With Challenge: to be a great man, protect his country, and restore his family name.

2) Rejection of challenge. He knows that his sexual leanings would destroy him, if known.

3) Acceptance of challenge. To serve his country and forever repress his sexual proclivities.

4) Road of Trials. Establishing his agency, fighting crime, integrating new scientific methods, trying to navigate a social life that allows him to maintain a public face while simultaneously satisfying his emotional needs.

5) Allies and powers. Fierce intelligence, drive, and commitment to his country. Tolson, his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), partner/assistant Clyde Tolson, agents, scientists, politicians, etc.

6) Confront Evil-defeated. The suggestion is that he was challenged to fully integrate his public and private lives, and this eluded him.

7) Dark Night of the Soul. The sense that he would never be a great man, because he could not accept him self, and demand that others accept him for his actual truth.

8) Leap of Faith. He was unable to take it.

9) Confront Evil--defeated. Unable to help his nation to a higher level of "integration" and acceptance of 'the other'--heaping civil rights (including sexual rights) in the same heap as crime and Communism.

10) Student Becomes The Teacher--true greatness eludes him. Whereas, MLK is considered "great" despite what (Hoover saw as) gigantic character flaws--but a personality far better integrated, and therefore capable of generative social change.


Despite my sense that greatness eludes this film, as perhaps it did its subject, this is more than an honest effort. It is a great filmmaker attempting to grapple with a great subject. It might have been better to wait another decade before attempting it: we are not yet free enough of our sexual provencialism to really look at this Gordian knot with clarity, or it would have taken a man younger or less Conservative than Eastwood to view the world without roots in a specific way of thinking and being--Eastwood was far too comfortable with snarky gay jokes in his early movies, and despite his admirable current philosophical stance on the subject, there is no way I can believe there isn't emotional "heat" there. Human beings have limited flexibility.

But he is a master, worthy of deep respect, and if "J. Edgar" fails it is partially our failure. There is simply no way to present this story without offending someone. Di Caprio delivers an Oscar-level performance, while Eastwood walks a tightrope between perceptions, social conventions and artistic obligation.

A high-wire act, indeed. Give it a "B." But it could have been so much more.

Or less.

1 comment:

Shady_Grady said...

Good review, Steve. Thanks.