Tuesday, November 29, 2011

J. Edgar

by Pa Rock
Movie Aficionado

Clint Eastwood's new film on the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who created the Federal Bureau of Investigation and served as its head for nearly half a century, is a big cinematic mess - and it pains me terribly to say that because I really, really wanted this movie to be good.  The film was a mishmash of snippets from Hoover’s life, lightly stirred, and poured into a story line that hopped forward and backward almost without strategy. It was confusing and often boring.

The fault for this cinematic debacle lies completely with the director, the writer, and the film editor. It was as though none of the three could determine where they wanted to take this effort, or what they wanted it to accomplish.

That said, the acting was superb. Leonardo DiCaprio and Dame Judi Dench (Hoover and his mother) are both Hollywood legends who can always be counted on to bring their characters to life with vitality and believability. Surprisingly though, the best performances were turned in by co-stars Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer.

Watts played Helen Gandy, the spinster who served as Hoover’s personal and confidential secretary for decades at the FBI. (It was Gandy whom many believe destroyed all of the blackmail files that Hoover kept on political rivals immediately after the old man’s death - before Richard Nixon could get his sweaty hands on them.) Watts portrayed Gandy as a caring and sensitive soul who had a compassionate understanding of her boss.

Armie Hammer was Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lover and dedicated assistant. It was Hoover’s relationship with Tolson that could have been the core of this story, but Eastwood seemed to fear going there – at least for any sustained examination. Eastwood’s Hoover and Tolson were two lonely and frustrated men who grew old and frail just beyond each other’s physical embrace.

Eastwood deserves credit for portraying the old coot as the blackmailer and power abuser which he obviously was, but there was so much more to the man.   His deeply closeted homosexuality, his intense racist bent, his hatred of FDR and the Kennedy's - all of those could have been more closely examined and drawn more fully into the script.

It becomes obvious during the movie that Hoover and Tolson, both aging bachelors, are in some sort of relationship, though they are never free to show their love to the world.  A recent book that I read regarding the FBI referred to Hoover and Tolson as having been in a "spousal relationship," and though they always lived in separate residences, they rode to and from work together in the backseat of Hoover's staff car, usually dined together, and took their vacations together.  When Hoover preceded Tolson in death, he left his estate to Tolson, the man he had  promoted to Assistant Director of the FBI.

To the movie director's credit, he did a nice job of depicting how strongly Hoover hated Martin Luther King, but there was not much beyond that to show Hoover's deeply held racist views.  Robert Kennedy as Attorney General inquired of Hoover almost daily as to when he was going to hire some black FBI agents.  On the few occasions that he did relent and employ black agents, they were routinely shuffled off into domestic duties - such as cooking and drivering.  Hoover knew the black man's place in society even if the Kennedy's did not - but Eastwood failed to fully show that ugly side of his subject.

Hoover had collections of files on many public people.  He was always quick to let them know about those materials and that he was keeping a copy for "safety's sake."  According to the Eastwood version, FDR couldn't fire him because Hoover had evidence showing that Eleanor had been in a lesbian relationship.  (Pot-kettle, Mr. Hoover?)  And also according to this movie, he had an audio-taped session of JFK wrestling in the sheets with a mobster's girlfriend.  (Judith Exner)  Both of those stories have been referenced by numerous historians and are undoubtedly true.  LBJ eventually appointed Hoover Director of the FBI "for life."  His file must have really been juicy!

But Hoover's laundry was not clean either.  Many believe that the reason he refused to recognize the presence of organized crime in America is that the Mafia had its own blackmail file - on him and Assistant Director Tolson.

J. Edgar is a film built on snippets.  I was surprised that it did not include a bit on the character assassination that the FBI did on liberal activist and actress Jean Seberg.  At one point the agency released information to gossip columnists indicating that the baby the pregnant actress was carrying had actually been fathered by a black man - a member of the Black Panther Party.  Many still believe that the extreme harassment by the FBI was a contributing factor in Seberg's suicide.  Jean Seberg starred with Clint Eastwood in the film Paint Your Wagon.

Expect a few Oscar nominations for the acting in J. Edgar - and maybe for costumes and set design, but while Clint may get a nomination just because he is a Hollywood legend and really, really old, he won't be taking home one of those little statuettes.

I am glad that I saw J. Edgar once, but once was plenty.

No comments: