Great Man Theories: Clint Eastwood on J. Edgar

A resounding “yes” to the question trembling on every lip: There is life after Hereafter! Clint Eastwood goes deep into Oliver Stone territory and emerges victorious with J. Edgar. Although hardly flawless, Eastwood’s biopic is his richest, most ambitious movie since the Letters From Iwo JimaFlags of Our Fathers duo, if not Unforgiven.

Does anyone under the age of 50 even remember the man who more or less created the FBI and successfully ran the agency for nearly half a century? Patriot, scoundrel, genius of self-promotion, gangbuster, red-baiter, blackmailer, proponent of the fingerprint, apostle of the wiretap, keeper of the crypt, and momma’s boy monster of sexual repression, J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) was one of the great American personalities of the 20th century. (“He’s sick, cruel, dogmatic, stupid, racist. . . . Everything I like in a character,” Sam Fuller once said.) Hoover is also a figure who, for the 81-year-old Eastwood, must have been a childhood hero and perhaps later a Dirty Harry ego-ideal as the guy who would break any law to defend The Law.

Hoover has already been splendidly embodied by Broderick Crawford in Larry Cohen’s 1977 pulp masterpiece, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. But with prosthetics simulating Hoover’s bulldog look, the better to enact the FBI man’s bulldog tenacity, Leonardo DiCaprio turns out to have been a quite canny casting move. With his own celebrity presence, DiCaprio successfully promotes the movie’s idea of Hoover as a star (rather than the squat balding troll familiar to anyone who grew up in the ’60s), even as he makes convincing the sexual ambiguity crucial to the Hoover conceived by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

Details

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Warner Bros.
Opens November 9

Related Stories

More About

Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, has furnished Eastwood with a complex, richly associative script that puts the first 20 years of Hoover’s career (the 1920s and ’30s) in the context of his last decade (the 1960s), with flashbacks motivated by the memoir he dictates to a succession of young agents. Crammed with material, even if the midsection is a bit slack, J. Edgar is a dense historical tapestry. Everyone from Emma Goldman and Shirley Temple to Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. and H.R. Haldeman gets a cameo, but it’s all in the service of historical perspective. The bombs that triggered the 1919 Palmer Raids foreshadow the events of, and fallout from, 9/11 (“the crimes we’re investigating are not crimes but ideas,” someone complains), even as the Hoover of 1961 looks back on the post–World War I Red Scare as a harbinger of the civil rights movement and its supposedly communist-directed leader, Martin Luther King. It’s “just like today,” Hoover more than once notes.

Like most Eastwood productions, J. Edgar is frugal and underlit; like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness. The movie’s closing thought: “Love is the greatest force on earth.” So, yes, J. Edgar provides an almost credible theory of the great man’s sexuality. The movie might have done more with his fascinated horror of female criminality, from Ma Barker to Angela Davis; still, when propositioned at age 35 by an eager movie starlet and then asked to dance by Ginger Rogers’s mother, Hoover runs home in terror to his battle-ax mom (Judi Dench). “I’d rather have a dead son than a live daffodil,” she snarls, and teaches him a rudimentary fox-trot. Eastwood sees Hoover’s relation to the women in his life as key—he early forms a crucial bond with his sternly asexual personal secretary Helen Gandy (self-effacingly played by Naomi Watts)—but his most important relationship is with designated best friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Discreetly campy for most of the movie, Hammer throws a magnificent tantrum upon learning that his soul mate is contemplating marriage with Hollywood sarongster Dorothy Lamour.

Indeed, Hollywood is never far away. Just as Hoover is several times accused of fabricating media stories and turning himself into a fictional hero, J. Edgar is a self-aware production, filled with its own textual signposts. There are flashes of Jimmy Cagney as a gangster in Public Enemy and a cop in G-Men. Other references are simply playful: Edgar and Clyde bond while shopping for clothes at a men’s store named Julius Garfinkle (given name of blacklisted star John Garfield) and the word “nelly” leaps out of a courtroom display at a kidnapping trial. J. Edgar not only references Citizen Kane but, in Edgar’s mother-loving antics, Psycho. There’s even a nod to The Matrix when Hoover begins dictating his memoirs to one Agent Smith (not, unfortunately, played by Hugo Weaving).

Most generously, J. Edgar also acknowledges Cohen’s Private Files, which posited Hoover as the black widow spider of American politics who orchestrated everything from the assassination of Robert Kennedy to the fall of Richard Nixon. In effect, Eastwood has given Cohen’s movie a prequel. Watching Nixon’s inauguration, Edgar is seized with anticipatory dread: “We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard.” He is, of course, using the royal we. Upon learning of Hoover’s death, the first thing Nixon does is tell his flunky, “I want those fucking files.”

 
My Voice Nation Help
16 comments
Steven Zapiler
Steven Zapiler

Um....strange comments aside....... I loved the way diCaprio/Eastwood brought out the aspects of Hoover that helped me understand the weird and ambitious aspects of his persona with less judgement and more insight than expected. He seems to have been a complex and driven person who sublimated his sexuality and over-expressed his self righteousness and I left having gotten to know the man in a way that was interesting and entertaining. It was particularly great to learn the perspective of the early part of 20th century America through events like the Hauptmann trial. Hoover, for me, seemed more ruthless and much more weird-the movie portrayed a man with human frailties making him and the history of the FBI more understandable.

Trendrabbit First
Trendrabbit First

The movie starts off with a bang, literally. The home of the attorney general, Hoover’s boss, is bombed by radicals. A young Hoover scoops up the leaflets left behind and we embark with him on his rise to power and decades-long dominance by fear and coercion of Washington’s powerful. The movie explores Hoover’s career and his relationship with Clyde Tolson, his long suffering colleague at the bureau.

Eastwood, like other actors-turned-director (Sean Penn, Ben Affleck and George Clooney, to name a few) has a spare directorial style that focuses on the actors’ performances. DiCaprio’s performance as Hoover is stellar. We’ve watched him graduate from younger roles, What’s Eating Gilbert Grape, Catch Me If You Can, to manhood in The Departed. In all of these he is excellent. Yet one could close one eye and say, this is Leonardo DiCaprio playing this character, a circumstance that is hard for high profile actors to escape. But here the cadence, the gestures, aided by the amazing makeup (Sian Grigg and Duncan Jarman) make the transformation complete and we are utterly lost in the character.

Read the rest here:

http://www.trendrabbit.com/201...

Lavaldes
Lavaldes

Saw it. Ok movie. DiCaprio does a very good acting job. Sadly narrow view of JEH's life story.

DC_Lady
DC_Lady

Mentioning Julius Garfinckel in the movie was a nod to where the elite people shopped and to Hoover's racist leanings:

Julius Garfinckel opened an upscale department store/fashion emporium in 1918 which became a destination for quality goods in Washington DC. Even though African Americans were welcome to shop in many stores in Washington, Julius Garfinckel's let it be known that African Americans were not welcome in his store.

Sakara
Sakara

probably more over-rated liberal eastwood directed dreck.

eastwood was at his best as an actor, killing heroin addicts and other punks.

hopefully, justin tv will have a bootleg of this movie on in next few days, so i can see it for free.

Drportals
Drportals

Wow, someone that thinks Eastwood is liberal is either truly ignorant or else the Tea Party is even farther to the right than I thought possible!

Ankhorite
Ankhorite

"probably" ??

so you're reviewing a movie you haven't seen, and confessing to a felony as well?

You're not the sharpest knife in the drawer, punk.

Sakara
Sakara

you can read a lot into a movie review----libs love most liberal movies, unseen.

and i did write probably---as in past liberal crap eastwood directed and which lib critics praised turned out to be junk, so it's easy to imagine the latest being liberal crap libs would love unseen.

AnnieChrist
AnnieChrist

killing heroin addicts and other punks...Other punks being petty thieves like yourself, pirating movies from bootleg sites? You right wingies, always with your sense of entitlement, living free off the hard work of liberals. What will your parents do when they find out you're overloading the series of tubes on the internets with your piracy?

Sakara
Sakara

yes, i am proud to watch current hollywood movies for free, and buy used amazon dvds in which studios and actors never make an extra penny.

Sakara
Sakara

YOU are the idiot who spends good money on bad movies.

be sure to protest against the wall street lesser rich, though...asshole.

Gdsnyc
Gdsnyc

that's because you're a flaming asshole, as all your posts make abundantly clear.

Floyd
Floyd

So sorry to hear that Eastwood just doesn't get you off unless there is blood flowing and NRA approved assault rifles popping in the background. If Eastwood is an over-rated director, I imagine your type of movie might be one, by the great director Ed Wood.

Sakara
Sakara

yes, count floyd (of sctv), i would rather watch an ed wood movie than some over rated eastwood directed liberal thing that critics love just because eastwood gave up his drive in right wing schlock for left wing more respectable schlock.

David Ehrenstein
David Ehrenstein

Have you seen the election results "Sakara"? Liberals RULE! Neo-fascists like you are just so five minutes ago.

Nice review, Jim. It's the year's second best love story (the Best being of course "Weekend.")

Sakara
Sakara

neo-fascist is how you could describe liberal hollywood... some white liberals in a city of mostly spanish speaking latinos.

yeah, gringo liberals hypocritically ruling over what is becoming a spanish speaking majority.

adios.

 

Now Showing

Find capsule reviews, showtimes & tickets for all films in town.

Box Office Report

Join My Voice Nation for free stuff, film info & more!

Loading...