Alex: One of the reasons Clint Eastwood’s films are so popular with the Academy is that they usually exhibit bravura acting, and the Academy membership is about 50% actors. (And they also tend to favor actor-directors.)
And indeed the directorial career of Clint is characterized by shrewd, often ingenious, casting. (He even has the good sense to know when to cast himself and when not to.) It’s been said that directing is 90% casting, so if that’s true, then okay, I suppose that makes Clint a great American film director.
But here’s the truth: He’s not. And J. Edgar distills the flaws of the Eastwood method and the limits of his imagination.
And let’s start with his casting choices: Leonardo DiCaprio, of whom I’m a great fan, isn’t really right for this role. Even at 37 he remains childlike, and he has a fiery streak of youth — which made him so compelling in, say, The Departed — that just doesn’t want to be molded into J. Edgar Hoover, all bottled and orchestrated energy, the personification of repression.
I do think Leo performs admirably. It isn’t just Oscar-seeking grandstanding. He seems to be finding the soul of Hoover in his clipped speech and practiced posture. This too speaks to the Clint method: Cast great actors and let them go to work. Sometimes that’s good enough. But sometimes it allows those actors to indulge their worst instincts. (I thought Sean Penn was awful, hard to watch, in the massively overrated Mystic River.)
And that’s my issue with Clint: his touch is so light. He chooses fascinating subject matter, populates the show with great talent, and then just kind of sits back and lets the machine build itself. There’s no point of view, no ironic distance, no political urgency. (Clint is one of these disengaged Republicans, kind of like George W. Bush. Never stopping to make a real connection or tell a prescient joke. They just kind of keep moving along without regard to ceremony or affect or affection. Jack Nicklaus is another one. Whenever I see this sort of personality on display, whenever I watch these people talk, I kind of want to knock on their foreheads — “Hello? McFly!!” — and jolt them into awareness and engagement. Anybody home?)
But getting back to the movie…. The final moment, which I won’t describe in too much detail, perfectly encapsulates what’s going wrong throughout J. Edgar: it’s a cruel, ingenious, moment of irony in which the always loyal and loving Clyde Tolson (a great turn from Armie Hammer) reads the loving words he never got to hear from Edgar, and even now those words are written by someone else, to someone else.
But Clint’s camera slowly backs away as his gentle piano score comes up (he always does the music for his own films, and it’s always the same tasteful, sentimental piano, never shifting style with each new project) and the movie fades out. It’s a nice, respectable final shot. It takes a devastatingly ironic event, a real heartbreaker, and wraps it up in restraint and quality filmmaking. It’s as if Clint doesn’t even understand the script he’s working with. Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter, smartly picks out the recurring ironies of J. Edgar’s life, but his dramatization is under-served by Clint’s direction, with its unfailing good taste.
The make-up jobs in this movie are a kind of metaphor for the whole project: someone worked really really hard on them, but you can see through them anyway.
Aaron: Well, you said it all very well, Alex. I know I’m supposed to disagree with you because, like hockey fans, people read this blog to watch us nitpick with one another and call each other names (you idiot).
The film is directed with the care and elegance of a tractor or some big Ninteenth-Century stamping machine. Clank, clank, clank. There is nothing pretty about it and basically no interest in any of the characters or the situations. I’m not sure Clint is particularly interested in the characters… I’m not sure why he made this film. It’s bizarrely nice to Hoover – well, more nice than not nice. It’s bizarrely closeted too. OK – fine. Hoover lived in the closet for a ton of reasons – mostly because men, particularly public men, didn’t live out in that era. But is he really suggesting that Tolson and Hoover never had sex as they were domestic partners for their entire lives? What’s the evidence of that? That’s stupid.
When I watched the film I kept thinking about Altman’s brilliant Secret Honor, and how that’s a totally fantastical Nixon he shows in it. There is no evidence that Nixon ever did or said or felt anything that’s in the film (well, we know Nixon was an anti-Semite, so the part about “the Jew!” is right on). But it’s an exploration of the Liberal view of Nixon – what we all think he must have gone through, or wished he did, as he sat in his office in the early ’80s looking back at his life and work. He’s vulnerable and bitter, unhinged and possibly dangerous. Of course, these are all human emotions and states – that we can see in ourselves (inasmuch as it’s a projection of our view of him, it’s a reflection of ourselves as well). J. Edgar has none of this investigation, introspection or analysis. It’s just an old man in bad makeup going through a list of things he did in his life. It’s a film Wikipedia entry of his life.