RUDE AWAKENING: J. EDGAR
Don’t go mistaking me for an arrogant and holier-than-thou woman: I am only saying this because I am petrified by the great ratings J. EDGAR have received as well as by the praises Clint Eastwood have been showered with. There is such an omertà surrounding Eastwood cinema that I feel it is my duty as a critic to not remain silent. Bottom line is I need to get what I think of J. Edgar out of my chest.
That Clint Eastwood is widely acclaimed as one of the most brillant filmmakers that have ever walked the face of the Earth is beyond me .
Every single time someone euphorically tells me that Eastwood is the best director ever I suddenly want to scream Mugatu’s classic line from Zoolander: “I feel like I am taking crazy pills!”, unable to understand why people cannot see that Eastwood is in fact a not that great of a cineast. This is why I have welcomed with great relief - almost as the Second Coming - the release of Stéphane Bouquet’s biography of Clint Eastwood, plainly titled Clint Fucking Eastwood. A former film critic for the very respected and serious French journal Les Cahiers du Cinéma, Bouquet claims too that Clint Eastwood is not a good director (thank you Sir for reassuring me about the satisfactionary state of my mental health).
I grew up with the Dirty Harry movies and my father is himself a huge fan of Eastwood’s westerns so he is not an unfamiliar face to me and I must say that I appreciate him as an actor. He is not the best one around but his talent to play a cool badass cannot be disputed. However, his supposed genious skills as a director can and even have to be discussed. I did not find one movie he did that deserved the title of masterpiece. I liked A Perfect World but it was because of Kevin Costner’s performance and the touching duo he formed with the child; Eastwood’s directing and editing having bored me. Being not a sociologist - although I would be glad to see a scientific report on this phenomenon -, I cannot explain why people refuse to question Eastwood’s legacy as a director but I can at least justify why I consider J. Edgar as being one of the worst supposed-to-be-great film I have ever seen.
Surprisingly enough, I wanted to see J. Edgar. Let me assure you that I am not saying this just to pretend that I am not that prejudisced towards Eastwood: I actually sincerely looked forward watching it in a theater.
I must had been in a very good and optimistic mood or the promotional campaign must had been remarkably effective because I suggested to my friends that we should all go see it together. I had a genuine hope that I would turn out to be a great picture. Yet, somehow, while we were queuing to get into the screening room, I suddenly felt like running away. I even started fantasying with one of my friend that we would skip J. Edgar and sneak into Shame’s projection. Social manners made us both stay I guess. The plot and the cast probably too.
Enjoying political biopics and thrillers - JFK (Oliver Stone) and The Intouchables (Brian De Palma) to name the most famous ones -, I was not put off at all by the inevitable dwelling into the historical and personal details of the life of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who directed and established the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the so-called FBI) as one of the United States most powerful and respected security organization. They did not teach us about him in school in France and having always been more passionated by Ancient History rather than contemporary history, I was looking forward to learn about him. Of course, I was not expecting a scholar lesson on the subject but I was at least sincerely interested. The lead actors chosen by Eastwood did not repulsed me either. Although I am by no mean a big fan of Leonardo Di Caprio I have confidence in his acting abilities, the same going for Naomi Watts. The only person I was not sure of was Eastwood and he indeed managed to ruin J. Edgar.
J. Edgar is a mess. Even those among you who have liked the film know what I am going to crucify first: the make-up. Instead of hiring actors to play the protagonists when they are older, Eastwood decided that DiCaprio, Watts and Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson) will incarnate them both young and old. It should not had been a problem considering that we are in the year 2012 and that the art of special effects have reached high levels. But it was, and a huge one.
It was simply impossible to take the actors seriously once they were saddled with their old people prostesises. The make-up was so awful that I was not able to get over it, to forget about it and enjoy the acting because it was too ridiculous. Was Eastwood affected with a momentary cecity when he went for these horrendious masks? Well yes I blame Clint Eastwood, who else is to blame but the director, the one who is supposed to control everything, to give a yes or no, to make the choices ? In my eyes, J. Edgar is a succession of bad directing choices and it saddens me to say that his mistaken judgement on the make-up is his less preoccupying one. As I wrote earlier, I did not expect this film to be a historical lecture, I only wanted to be told a story. One was indeed narrated to me but I ended up not caring about it at all. The reasons are multiple but equally responsible for my final disdain towards the characters destinies.
The life of J. Edgar Hoover is told by Hoover himself, having decided to hire legal writers to draw up a history of the FBI in order to respond to the attacks he had been the targets of most of his existence. We are then travelling back and forth between the present and the past. Again, there is nothing problematic about this but the fact that the va et vient were so sudden and not clearly enough signaled that there was always a short moment where I felt confused, not knowing for sure which period I was back on. It was only a couple of seconds but it was so recurrent that it tired me. The other thing that bothered me was the lack of informations and explanations. Perhaps am I the only one who went to see this film who did not graduate university with honours for the writing of a biography of Hoover but I was sometimes lost about some characters identities, functions and relevance. I am not against letting the spectactor use his brain but in a biopic, what is the point ?
I understand that Eastwood did not want to portray Hoover as a good or a bad guy but developing further some events - other than the actions Hoover took against communism and to investigate the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby - would have not altered his neutral perspective. I think maybe my trouble with following the course of the historical events was due to the badly delimited used of the back and forth technique. Anyhow, I am not ashamed to admit that the political aspect of Hoover’s life like it was depicted in the picture was a blur to me.
Deprived from substantial narrative informations and scenes that would have allowed me to be genuily interested in Hoover’s public actions, I did not have any other choice but to focus my attention on his personal life. It seems to me that Eastwood himself did the same. I have no doubt that Hoover’s existence and personality were worth the making of a film about him but I can only deplore the pathetic way Eastwood managed to depict the man.
I have read in many positive reviews of J. Edgar that its director succeeded in portraying such an important and feared man with fairness, without forcing us to like or hate him. I beg to differ: Eastwood infused so much pathos in his treatment of Hoover’s personal life that it is simply impossible to not forge an opinion about him. I concede that I did not end up loving or despising him but I did judge him as a disgustingly weak. Watching J. Edgar, I was gradually more and more stunned by the absolute lack of subtility with which Eastwood showed his protagonist’s flaws and relationships with his close entourage. He resorted to the use of so many narrative and scenic clichés that at one point I seriously wondered if he directed such an over the top movie on purpose, the opposite would be even more alarming.
Exploring a powerful public figure’s psyche and unconventional relationships is always something fascinating to do but also to read about or see, if it is done well. Unfortunately, Eastwood totally missed his chance to render Hoover’s so-called secretive life passionating but rather managed to render it properly feeble. Hoover’s symbiotic connection with his mother made me at first unconfortable but I quickly found out that my embarassment was not due to its nature but to the strings Eastwood used to tell us about the dynamic between the son and his mother. He attempted to make us feel that despite being afraid of his mother (Judi Dench)’s judgement, Edgar did love her, thinking that including a scene where Edgar puts on one of her dress after she passed away would be a great way to vehiculate for good this idea. I cannot find the words to describe how ridiculous this scene. I know that J. Edgar Hoover was alledgely a tranvestite but why did Eastwood chose this moment to hint it? Instead of sensing a maybe unusual mix of fear and love but still somehow touching from Edgar for his dear mommy, I just generally saw them as Norma and Norman Bates.
Absolutely repulsed by Hoover and his mother, I was at least taken by his relation with his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) but most of all with his right man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Although still not subtily depicted, following this undeclared couple year after year was moving and entertaining. Balancing the creepy atmosphere that was charateristic of Hoover’s meetings with his mother at their darkly lighted family home, Armie Hammer brought to his role a candor and freshness that made me care for him. It is actually only in his scenes with Tolson that I feel like I could begin to understand the duality that Eastwood tried to show about him during his two hours long movie. Unfortunately, the director sabottaged the only thing he did right by filming one of the most cliché love declaration scene I have ever seen in my life. As an old Hoover, DiCaprio tells Tolson what this last one had longed all the years to hear. It could have been a very emotional and beautiful scene but thanks to the awful make-up, cheesy lines put into DiCaprio’s mouth (Eastwood sharing the blame with the scenarist Justin Lane Black) and of the unnecessary adding of a dramatic element, the moment was ruined.
Of J. Edgar, I can and want only to praise the actors performances without which this film would have completely sunk. Sadly, the big names that Eastwood attached to his project as well as the attractive supporting cast (Dermot Mulroney, Miles Fischer and Lea Thompson to name a few) were not enough to maintain it above the water.
What J. Edgar has suffered from is the abundant material that Eastwood had the pretention to process and his ultimate unability to do it sensibly. Eastwood was exceeded by his ambitious project. His movie is clearly not controlled or mastered, lacking of substantial narrative on one hand and giving way too much on the other. Furthermore, we travel through time, never knowing what year we are in, never quite understanding why Hoover would dislike a certain person and what are his real motivations. Portrayed as a paranoid anal-retentive control freak, Hoover is psychanalyzed by Eastwood who roots his mental problems in his maternal severe up-bringing and his repressed homosexuality. Do his personality explain all his political decisions ? It seems to be the message that Eastwood delivers to us.
There is not one moment in the film where his hatred of communism and general vision about the FBI is intellectually explained. I left the theater seeing Hoover as nothing more as a coward, a weak man, a mommy’s boy, without thinking one second of his innovative achievements that appear anecdoctical compared to his conflicted personal life. And that is exactly what Eastwood wanted to avoid. Well, he should have paid more attention to what he chose to show on the screen; a reductive tableau of Hoover’s persona. Oliver Stone would have proved more delicate.
Suffering from the Robert Redford syndrom which main symptom is the desire of an average but good-looking actor - knowing that is legacy as such won’t be that remarkable - to market himself as an indie directorial genious, Eastwood has showed again that the general adoration surrounding his film is undeserved. It is annoying in a way to see him so praised while a real great director like Warren Beatty (Reds, Bulworth) is barely mentionned as such anymore. Having never been a part of Eastwood fan-club, the failure that is J. Edgar did not surprise me that much. I weep for his followers though. It must had been a rude awakening.