November 26, 2011

Lies and Consequences

a review of J.Edgar

Clint Eastwood’s latest film is a biopic in the more or less classic/modern mode, telling the story of the long and tortured life of a short and troubled man, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). Although there are some fine performances, the film doesn’t click at the level of morality tale that one suspects Eastwood was reaching for, and falls short of the grand tragedy it might have been. The most effective elements are the touching interpersonal and domestic tragedies of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson (Armie Hammer), and the insidious relationship Hoover had with his mother — and let me say Dame Judi Dench is riveting as a twisted and twisting mother out of some private Hell.

But the larger tragic theme never quite seems to click: how a man supposedly so devoted to truth and justice could remain so blind not only to the lies he told himself but the lies he told others, and how by setting himself up as private arbiter of justice committed great injustices against the country he loved. The theme almost clicks in the late scenes in which Hoover (perhaps) recognizes in Nixon some of his own foibles and failings, but the connection fails to link with a satisfying chunk of dramatic inevitability.

Perhaps I’m asking too much — but it seems to me that here was a story of possibly Shakespearian proportions, complete with subplots and levels of resonance. Yet the personal and public levels of the story fail to align in this dramaturgical dance, and remain as clumsy as Hoover’s own first efforts at terpsichore.

The film could have been a morality play for our time: when the well-meaning and self-righteous commit crimes in the cause of justice, and promote real falsehood in support of some abstract truth. Perhaps in retrospect the film will be seen in that light, but for the present it fails to make the connections.

There is much to admire in the technical aspects of the film, in terms of decor, costume and sense of period, but the make-up imposed upon Hoover and Tolson in an effort to age the actors has to be the worst I’ve seen in decades. The high-resolution camera is a harsher critic than I will ever be; but it is astounding to me that the make up on the men is so poor (you can practically see the seams) while Naomi Watts’ is so subtle and convincing. (Different make-up artists were involved, and it is easy to see who has the knack and who doesn't) A minor point, to be sure, but a distraction in engaging with the characters, who, to the actors’ credit, do manage to move and engage.

So this remains an actors’ film rather than a director’s. See it for the performances, and perhaps with a goal to find among the remnants some hint of what it might have been.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG


Scoop (Leslie Scoopmire) said...

I just don't think I can bring myself to see this one, even though I teach US history. Hoover was a repugnant person, and I have never quite forgiven Leo for Titanic.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Well, Scoop, as I say, you won't be missing anything great. The film misses more than it hits, and that's too bad.

June Butler said...

Tobias, I should have taken your post more to heart, but Tom wanted to see the movie. Certain scenes in the film held my interest, but during rather long stretches, I wanted a fast-forward button. As you say, there were fine performances. Judi Dench was marvelous, as usual, and Armie Hammer was quite good as Tolson, but with DiCaprio, I could not suspend disbelief. Through much of the film, he remained an actor playing a part, but for a few scenes with Hammer.

I agree that there are the makings of a tragedy and a morality tale in Hoover's story, but Eastwood did not make either happen.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Mimi. You are right about the uneven pacing, as well as some of the effective scenes.

I think DiCaprio suffers from his stardom -- as good as he is as an actor, even with layers of foam latex, he is too recognizable. I think it's a particular problem when playing an historical character some of us actually remember! It's too easy to say, "That's not Hoover, it's Leo!"

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Further thought re the last... Compare with Frost/Nixon, for example, where neither actor is quite so famous in himself. The actors were able to inhabit the roles and be convincing.

Or even more, perhaps the best along this line in recent years, Helen Mirren as QE II...

June Butler said...

Actually, a close physical resemblance to a historical person seems not to be all that important for the actor. Of course, you're the expert here, and I should have payed attention to you, other negative reviews, and my own best instincts. Roger Ebert gave the movie a good review, which convinced me to go. I'm now wondering if we saw the same film. ;-)

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Mimi, I think that's right. The physical resemblance need not be a perfect match; and if it is only achieved with tons of makeup that actually gets in the way. There is always the danger of falling into an impersonation rather than acting, too.

MarkBrunson said...

Or, Helen Mirren as QE1, for that matter. The lady's a true gem.

She even made me feel a slight touch of humanity in Ayn Rand . . . a very slight touch, but still.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Ah, yes, QE I as well. She is really one of the best. I've not seen her version of the Tempest, which I hope to catch at some point.

Deacon Charlie Perrin said...


I don't often disagree with you, but here I must. I enjoyed the film a great deal. Yes, Hoover was a flawed person (who isn't). But his denial of himself (his sexuality, his cowardice, his self importance) was tragic indeed.

As Eastwood's Dirty Harry once said: "A man's got to know his limitations."

J. Edgar didn't and perhaps couldn't.

Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG said...

Thanks, Charlie. I agree with you about Hoover; but for me the film remains a three- rather than a four-star.