Love and scandal are the best sweeteners of tea. —Henry Fielding

13 November 2011

Hoover's Tale

Well, I really wanted to like Clint Eastwood's new film J. Edgar. I obviously think the story is interesting, and I have noted before how I am actively interested in what I see as Clint Eastwood's larger project of examining Americanism as a concept. I see him as taking apart pieces of iconic American historical moments and re-interrogating these time periods that so many of us see as nation-forming. So, I don't see his films as about nostalgia at all (though many have accused them of exactly that), but as reinvigorations of history, anti-nostalgic, and restless.

...But J. Edgar is a misstep for me, and not because I don't think Eastwood's project is still a valid one, but because I just don't think the film works.

For starters, the film's structure is off from the beginning. It has this frame where Hoover is telling his side of the story to these various agents who type up what he says. I know I am not one to advocate for a film to trick its audience a little, but J. Edgar starts off by telling us that what we are seeing is a lopsided version of what happened – Hoover's own version of facts most of us understand very differently from the way he understands them. There is a big emotional moment in the film's third act where all of these so-called facts are called into question, but this moment rings completely hollow, because as an audience, we've been skeptical of Hoover's version since the beginning.

J. Edgar is filmed in the style of an old Hollywood flick, sumptuous and without – for the most part – flashy camera work. Tom Stern's cinematography is a little too washed out for my taste (nothing wrong with a little color – especially in a film about the thirties and forties), but I think that's a sort of standard look for pictures about law-enforcement these days, as though there were only grayscale movies in the thirties and forties. More importantly, the film's sequences are scripted as though we are watching an old Hollywood flick. I'm gonna come right out and say that I thought J. Edgar was a really conservative film. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an interview with him at Towleroad is worth reading) has chosen mostly scenes that he feels like he can verify publicly, but the problem here is this means that J. Edgar does not break enough ground in exploring Hoover's personal life.

And I'm not just talking about the gay thing.

The idea that Hoover was terrified of socializing with women and was terrified that he was homosexual is so much a part of the film that it feels like it is in the movie too much on occasion (especially since the film's perspective is allegedly Hoover's own spin on things). But for me the movie botches all the queer stuff too. It looks like J. Edgar is building up to some sort of sexual release for most of the movie. Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer (dear lord he is gorgeous) look longingly at each other for the film's entire second act, but then the film never defines what is actually going on. And, okay, okay, I understand that we don't know what happened and that Hoover probably didn't understand himself as a homosexual, and that the filmmakers clearly want us to imagine what went on. But that makes J. Edgar the kind of movie that would have been made about the queerness of a famous figure in, say, the early 1970s, where we would understand that a character was gay because the film created silences that we could read as homosexuality.

I am not sure if I was simply bored with the film, but all of this talking to the side of sexuality is boring to me. If you're gonna present Hoover's sexuality (or lack of such) as this defining force in his life, then you also need to flesh it out a little more, and who cares if it is mostly imagined by a screenwriter.

I didn't hate this film (it was no Good Shepherd) but I found myself constantly pulled out of it. I don't think it ever hit its stride, and I was constantly wanting it to move in directions in which it refused to move. And even more importantly, I never really thought any of it seemed very real. The makeup was obviously a big problem – many in the blogosphere have commented that it does not look realistic – but the entire film felt to me like these actors were playing dress-up. Hammer and Naomi Watts looked comfortable in their skin, but I felt like most of the other performers looked slightly stilted for the film's entire running time, as though they were hoping no one noticed that they weren't really those characters.

You will all probably have different reactions to this movie than I did, and I expect that it will pick up at least a few Oscar nominations come January, so I am interested in what you all think.