Saturday, November 26, 2011

J. Edgar (Brockway)

Tropic Sprockets by Ian Brockway
J. Edgar

As I zoomed into The Peggy Dow with my chair in a slanted position, I knew that I might be in for it. The rectangle of motion and dreams hovered in front of me about to show another historical epic from Clint Eastwood. It seemed a given that I would feel a sense of deja vu. 

After the endless ad campaign on tv for "J. Edgar", I steeled myself for a two hour and fifteen minute character study. Someone in the theater told me that it might be a real leg cramper. Something sepia this way comes, I thought. 

But I was ready.

Happily, throughout most of "J. Edgar", I was entertained and able to forget my body. Yes, the sepia tones that Eastwood often uses in his films are here in force. Everything pictured is either gray brown or off-blue but each auteur deserves his or her trademark. 

Leonardo DiCaprio plays  J. Edgar Hoover in a very heartfelt and thankfully unmelodramatic way. He is somber,  driven, strangely poignant and resolute. The only thing  slightly ghoulish about him is the makeup. With the square chin, the wrinkles that look like cement and the jutting forehead, Dicaprio's face looks damn uncomfortable as if it weighs a ton. Curiously, it looks like a old man Halloween mask. But the angst  in DiCaprio's eyes---the contrast between young middle age and an old man---makes his performance all the more striking.

The best parts of the film are not its re-creations of history: Communist raids during the 1920s, Prohibition, The Lindbergh case or RFK, but rather Hoover alone, living with his dominant mother (Judy Dench). Eastwood does not spare us much. We see Hoover in all his masochism. This is a man who is the head of the FBI, but his mother and the scourge of being a "daffodil" or a gay man, can reduce him to jelly. 

Throughout the narrative, Hoover sees himself as imperfect. He stumbles and giggles around women. In order to compensate for his  heterosexual shortcomings, he takes on the crusade of America, against Communism, The Left  and,those that seem "different" or unpatriotic to him. Hoover was human but he was also a danger and it was eating at him from within. 
Under a more superficial lens, Hoover might seem like Dick Tracy, especially given the makeup which echoes the 1990 Warren Beatty film, but Eastwood gives us a glimpse of the full person---both the man, and the monster of ambition.

In scope and tone "J Edgar" recalls Oliver Stone's "Nixon".  In that film too, you have a similar average man, unblessed with looks who pathologically pursues what he thinks is right. Both films have an non-linear expressionist style, giving equal weight to dream and memory. The two films are bookends. Perhaps Oliver Stone shared his secret files with Eastwood.

Highlights of the film include Hoover giving his agent and almost lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) a slug and a kiss on the floor. The scene is Hitchcockian in intensity and just misses being taken for   foreplay. After the incident, Hoover is crushed. A G-Man without his G. And if that's not enough to bring you in, how about an Oedipal episode with Hoover putting on his mom's dress and speaking in his mom's voice, "Be strong, Edgar" Anthony Perkins would be just tickled.

Skeletons in the closet aside, I wanted to sympathize a bit with Dicaprio's Hoover, his ambition is so honest along with his shyness. Edgar wants to make the world so Right. He races to arrest criminals, only to arrive too late. 

Yet as an old man, his hatred of Civil Rights and Martin Luther King, get the better of him and he becomes ugly and a bit of a creep, especially to his friend Clyde.

The most affecting scenes despite Hoover's unsettling and distasteful views, are the moments where he encounters something emotional and sexual: when listening to a Kennedy affair he is like a drooling adolescent. At the races, with Clyde beside him as an old man, there is the regret of an intimacy unfulfilled and passed by.

"J. Edgar" is a timely collage of  an odd man behind the mask of The G-Man who wanted to right-angle the world, at all and any cost. But despite his square-edged suit and chin, you get the feeling that the only person J. Edgar Hoover wanted to be was his mother.

Write Ian at

No comments: