This review is the final installment of Ronan’s Eastwood Retrospective.
Though a number of his films have featured aspects of the lives of real people—White Hunter Black Heart, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Invictus—Clint Eastwood’s 1988 Bird long stood as the sole true biopic amidst his filmography. Largely forgotten alongside the director’s Oscar-nominated later films, it was Bird’s bipartite approach to its subject—simultaneously celebrating and criticising the life and work of jazz musician Charlie Parker without ever succumbing to the temptation of outright glorification or vilification—that made it arguably Eastwood’s first great film. Now, 23 years later, J. Edgar becomes his second entry in the genre, approaching the titular FBI Director with not just much the same reserved ambiguity toward his impact on the world, but an intriguingly insightful examination of just what it was he really represented.
I can never quite pinpoint what it is about Eastwood the director that fascinates me so much. It may be the still-lingering surprise at finding in Million Dollar Baby so tender, bleak, and convention-defying a film from someone previously engrained in both my mind and popular culture as an icon of generic masculinity and the established order. It may equally be his fervent iconoclasm, tearing down those same preconceived notions of the aforementioned masculinity, as well as of the genres on which both his career and the American film industry itself were largely established. It is his constant re-evaluation of American ideals and the tropes of the nation’s cinema that makes him, to my mind, one of its most invaluable and interesting directors, a sentiment not shared by many who have criticised his latter-day work, not least of all J. Edgar, which has unjustly found little critical favour despite being an accomplished reassessment of one of his most incisively explored themes. From his early indictment of chauvinistic masculinity with his directorial debut Play Misty for Me, to the charming Breezy’s examination of the trouble in adapting an old patriarchal American society to the spirit of a young new feminine one, to the utterly unexpected The Bridges of Madison County, Eastwood’s treatment of the American romance has evolved masterfully throughout his body of work. J. Edgar takes this trend a step yet further, moving beyond the feminine concerns of his earlier films to explore more overtly in an American context the concept of love.
Many have criticised the film’s lingering darkness, but the heavily contrasting almost-monochrome tones manifest physically the evolution of Hoover as a man.
The tenth pairing of Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern in as many years, J. Edgar is rife in the reduced lighting scheme that has defined their partnership. Many have criticised the film’s lingering darkness, but the heavily contrasting almost-monochrome tones manifest physically the evolution of Hoover as a man. Newly appointed director of the FBI early in the film, Hoover proudly strides down a corridor as brightly lit as his aspirations for excellence in his field. By the film’s conclusion, the screen is flooded with darkness, only the highlighted edges of Hoover’s features discernible in the mirth of amorality he has become defined by. Stern’s expressionist tendencies externalise the man who never reveals the truth of what lies beneath—often not even to himself. The more appalling aspects of Hoover’s political career are a matter of no doubt; indeed, the man seems better remembered in the modern day for his modern character flaws than for his professional successes. Eastwood and his writer Dustin Lance Black do not shy away from depicting the harsher realities of the former FBI director; in fact, their focus is placed far more so upon his moments of particular despicability.
Eastwood’s Hoover is a man drawn ever more to corruption by the power of his 48-year term in office, his original insistence that he is bending the law in service of justice gradually so twisted out of proportion that it is but a grisly remnant of its former self; a one-time guideline now turned to an excuse. He is unashamedly racist, his perception of the rising power of Martin Luther King and the civil rights movement late in the film as the new incarnation of Communism certainly not painting him in any positive light. This, Eastwood and Black are quick to point out, was a man of questionable morality at best. So why, given a protagonist with whom political sympathies are all but impossible to maintain, should we concern ourselves with J. Edgar? The reason becomes apparent in one of the very first scenes, wherein Hoover is dictating his version of history to a biographer as Tolson attempts to open a door into the room. Hoover refuses him entry, angrily demanding he leave them in peace and wait until later. The little details highlight immediately this relationship; our first glance of Tolson in all the film is from behind frosted glass, an indistinct figure kept shut out from Hoover’s rendition of his life.
The Hoover of J. Edgar is one severely repressed sexually. He is visibly uncomfortable around women, his understanding of them hopelessly limited. Black’s script finds an efficient humour in his interactions with first his eventual secretary Helen Gandy, to whom he proposes on their third date, and later a group of three women in a restaurant, whose romantic advances provoke him to uncomfortably insist he must leave, with Tolson in tow. Eastwood and Black never definitively subscribe to the popular opinion of Hoover as a closeted homosexual, but scenes of his mother opining that a dead son would be better than a “daffodil” son certainly seem suggestive of repressed impulses within him. He seems almost magnetically attached to Tolson, the comfort he takes from his companionship keeping him calm in situations of high pressure. While their relationship never manifests itself physically, it is clear that these two have an emotional connection as strong as that of any romantic couple; that their connection runs deeper than mere friendship.
Eastwood’s film takes the story of a man generally remembered with a touch of retrospective scepticism, and infuses it with a layered tale of forbidden love and self-denial.
J. Edgar establishes itself under the pretence of historical biography, but morphs gradually into something a good deal more interesting: a romantic tragedy. Even one bitterly contentious of the idea of predestination would have to admit a powerful sense of fate to Tolson and Hoover’s union, an undeniable symbiosis where each of the two gives strength to the other. Eastwood’s film takes the story of a man generally remembered with a touch of retrospective scepticism, and infuses it with a layered tale of forbidden love and self-denial. Hoover perceives any deeper relationship with Tolson as threatening to his position of power, yet knows himself that his true power comes from their closeness. That Hoover was once a recognised paragon of American values, ideals, and attitudes says much about Eastwood’s intention in adopting this story. As Hoover’s aforementioned hatred of Martin Luther King is portrayed, we invariably become opposed to him; of course we do, his potent racism is nothing short of criminal. Yet at the same time, Black ingeniously twists this to reflect Hoover’s self-repression, his standing as a statesman inviting consideration of him as the embodiment of nationalism, where there exists no place within him for that which is different.
J. Edgar is a work of remarkable suggestive power, enshrouded in an inevitably tragic and heartfelt love story, itself wrapped in a structured historical narrative. Eventually shedding the illusion of biographical intention it arrived with, it uses a pre-existing character to express critical ideas on repression both from the self and the state. Yes, the aging makeup may render Hammer’s face a liver-spotted distraction at times, and the film may overstay its welcome a tad, but Eastwood and Black have here constructed a marvellous portrait of a conflicted man, and through him a thoughtful questioning of the negative effects our values breed. Showcasing some of the finest work DiCaprio has yet produced, and an incredible attention-grabbing performance from Hammer, J. Edgar is Eastwood’s finest work since Letters from Iwo Jima, and yet another starkly revisionist American masterwork from one of the nation’s cinema’s most undervalued geniuses.
[notification type=”star”]82/100 ~ GREAT. Eventually shedding the illusion of biographical intention it arrived with, it uses a pre-existing character to express critical ideas on repression both from the self and the state.[/notification]