Thursday, November 17, 2011
Clint Eastwood is smart and savvy, a polished professional whose long career probably owes a lot to the talent he’s proven, both as an actor and as a director, for whittling things down to a fine polish. In rounding off his own rough edges, he lessens the risk of alienating viewers, but he also removes the passion and personality that can make a movie great.
He’s at his best when he sticks with the entertaining and solidly constructed genre movies, like The Outlaw Josie Wales, that make up most of his output. Now and then, he’s displayed a winningly light touch with a simple romance or character study (The Bridges of Madison County, Bronco Billy), and he’s directed a handful of original, quirky, deeply personal films that leave lasting emotional footprints, like his tribute to Charlie Parker (Bird) or his two very different meditations on violence and the cinematic antiheroes who were once his bread and butter: Unforgiven and Gran Torino.
But more often than not, he overreaches when he tries to make a statement or yank at our heartstrings, winding up with a clunker like Changeling or the Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima diptych.
J. Edgar is another of Eastwood’s stilted, self-consciously “important” costume dramas. He lights it like a film noir, sometimes even leaving the actors’ eyes unreadable as he puddles their faces in shadow. I guess this is supposed to signal that something is hidden or amiss, but most of the time it just made me wish someone would turn on the lights. Eastwood has used that combination of murky brown-black backgrounds and blazing spotlights in most of his movies since Tightrope (1984), and it feels more reflexive than reflective here.
Pacing is usually one of Eastwood’s strong points, but that’s off here too. The film is too long by at least half an hour, and we spend far too much time on one case (the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby) and far too little on others (a few brief snippets about Emma Goldman are all we get of a controversial case).
The sets are good, his rococo bedroom and office signaling Hoover’s sense of his own importance. But the makeup and costumes are surprisingly bad, constantly drawing attention to themselves. As played by The Social Network’s Arnie Hammer, Clyde Tolson, decades-long assistant and life partner to FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover (Leo DiCaprio) and the probably unconsummated love of his life, is aglow as a young man, his long-lashed baby blues set in skin so creamy you want to reach out and touch it. But the pasty white mask that entraps Hammer when he plays an old man is so stiff you can’t detect any difference in Tolson’s face after he has a supposedly crippling stroke. Even the excellent Naomi Watts, who plays Hoover’s loyal lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy, is upstaged by her costumes as a young woman and her zombie-white makeup as an old one.
DiCaprio’s old man mask is much better than the others, giving him the jowly bulldog look of the aged Hoover, but at times even he looks conspicuously made-up. The actor is as egregiously miscast here as he was in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator, an aging playboy playing at being a nerd turned paranoid powerbroker. Delivering his portentous lines and voice-overs in a clumsy accent (“Mock my wuhds,” he warns us early on, in a challenge I couldn’t resist), striding about his office shouting and waving a folded-over newspaper for emphasis, or pulling down the corners of his mouth to signal unhappiness, he semaphores in a performance so broad it almost feels like a spoof. The frequent appearances by representations of famous figures like Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon, H.R. Haldeman, Ginger Rogers, and Shirley Temple feel underdeveloped too, since they’re all embodied too poorly to work as impersonations but sketched too lightly to quite register as characters.
But no one could have uncovered much depth in Dustin Lance Black’s script, which stays resolutely neutral on the politics of this highly political story. Keeping the focus on what Hoover did and why he did it, J. Edgar sidesteps the central question: What did his actions mean to the rest of us? We get that he professionalized the bureau (“We now had forensics, expert witnesses, and facts,” Hoover says in voiceover), scared Congress into exponentially increasing the FBI’s budget and jurisdictional power, and kept presidents from replacing him by collecting incriminating evidence about them and their families, but we get almost no sense of what effect those things had in the world outside the Beltway.
Instead, we follow Hoover like a G-man on the case, examining his claustrophically close private world for clues as to what made him tick. The answer, it seems, is Mommy Issues straight outta Psycho, right down to a scene of Hoover trying on his dead mother’s clothes. (There was a lot of knowing laughter, at the screening I attended, at the signs of his closeted angst: Maybe this movie works best as camp.)
So much amateur psychologizing and so little historical analysis throws off the story’s center of gravity. If we don’t know why Hoover’s actions mattered, why should we care what he thought or felt?
Written for TimeOff