The Films of 2011: J. Edgar

With Mystic River (2003), Clint Eastwood entered a particularly fertile late period in his directorial career, made up of rich, complex films that often toed the line of mawkishness.  Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and Gran Torino all risked being undone by their own disregard for subtlety—by their sheer gravitation toward big emotion—but there were still so many good things in them that they somehow worked.  Eastwood's latest, J. Edgar, isn't so successful at skirting absurdity.  The biopic follows Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his youth in the 1920s, through his rise as the director of the FBI and his dogged investigation of the Lindbergh kidnapping, to his death during the Nixon administration.  As interpreted by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Hoover's paranoia and vindictiveness were rooted in his closeted homosexuality.  The film foregrounds Hoover's mommy issues (Judi Dench, very good but underused, plays Mrs. Hoover), his awkwardness with women, and his intimate lifelong relationship with right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, terrible), which is mounted as a touching love story over which we're invited to shed a sorrowful tear.  It’s like Brokeback Mountain, except the closeted hero takes out his sexual frustration on the whole country instead of his wife.  See what a culture of homophobia and repression do to people!?, we can practically hear Black yelling at us. 

But the film isn't really interested in exploring that culture of homophobia that produced men like Hoover, nor is it interested in contextualizing Hoover's homosexuality, its meaning within the Cold War era (which the film bizarrely skips over), or its relationship to political “subversion.”  Rather than showing an awareness of these contexts or delving into the intricate paradoxes and contradictions built into Hoover’s troubled psyche—the tangle of queerness, homophobia, paranoia—Black’s screenplay gives us a simplistic image of Hoover as pitiful victim, as tragic sufferer.  The film fetishizes Hoover’s repression; it seems to get off on how tormented he was, and how, underneath it all, he was just a big softy who loved Tolson but couldn’t admit it.  This is, finally, the film’s fatal mistake: not that it pathologizes Hoover (like it or not, that’s almost an inevitable consequence of a biopic), nor that it considers him humanely or even sympathetically, but that it gets maudlin about him.  The delicate, wistful music, the longing gazes—this isn’t a political film, it’s a cliché romance. 

The performances (particularly by DiCaprio and Judi Dench) are as good as the limitations of the film will allow.  But they can’t make up for the film’s oversimplifications, its rhetorical shiftiness, or its queasy attempts to make Hoover and Tolson into a couple of doddering old sweethearts.  I blame Black for this; as in the case of his Oscar-winning (!) script for Milk (2008), he can’t help but reduce complex historical figures and issues to neat platitudes.  Here he turns Hoover the “cocksucker” (the script’s phrase) into a guy who just needed a little Love.  I’d rather have seen a movie about the cocksucker.   

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