Monday, 18 June 2012

Movie review: J. Edgar, dir Clint Eastwood (2011)

Judi Dench, who plays Hoover's mother,
alongside Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover.
In its beginnings, this film promises much. It employs a complex structure involving scenes from the "present" (at the time of the Kennedys) at which time a very mature J. Edgar Hoover engages a young FBI agent to take down his memoirs, along with scenes from the "past" which show bits from the story of Hoover's life with the FBI as they play out. It even cuts back at one point to Hoover's childhood, when he was a young boy. This complexity screams "authentic" to the movie watcher, as do those scenes that focus on Hoover's problematic sexuality, which appears to be a primary point of interest for the director. It's probably a point of high importance for American cinemagoers, too. It appears pretty certain that Hoover was gay, but so what. I'm sure there are a lot more honest and explicit sources that the filmmakers could have drawn on to demonstrate the fact in place of trying to nimbly suggest, using scenes involving Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer), Hoover's "special friend", the real nature of Hoover's confliction and so attract our sympathy to him. Poor man, it was the times he lived in. That sort of thing. Put simply, Hoover's sexual orientation is just not that important, unless the community for which the film is made considers homosexuality to be something aberrant and unwholesome, as Hoover's mother (Judi Dench) clearly does.

A lot of the film is shot in dark tones that also imply authenticity; cinemagoers are used to this unadorned feel for movies dealing with the 20s and 30s, probably because everything that is available that was made in those years was shot in black-and-white. The plain, honest, wholesome feel of the scenes from this period in the movie have a Norman Rockwell-like normalcy about them that is misleading because it implies that those times were, indeed, plain, honest and wholesome. Eastwood similarly treats the terrorist attacks that dot the film's early scenes. The FBI was established at the close of WWI and its investigations of anarchists and terrorists in the period were not always handled well; it was early days in the agency. But Eastwood firstly makes the reason for establishing the FBI unproblematic by ignoring the reasons for the unrest and secondly draws heavily and unashamedly on our modern fear of terrorism in the wake of the Twin Towers tragedy to add shine to Hoover's patriotism, and justify what the FBI did in those years when it was still finding its legs. The fact that the FBI actually blanketed thousands of people in its raids, many of whom had nothing to do with bombings and who were merely politically motivated to organise, is glossed over in the movie.

The movie spends a lot of time looking at the Lindberg kidnapping, where we see Hoover fighting for federal laws and for use of fingerprinting to identify potential criminals. Here's Hoover doing something good, we're told. Here's a policeman who wants to use science and good administration to combat illegality. And on the other hand the filmmakers seem to take on Hoover's unorthodox ideas. So occasionally we get glimpses of the darker side of Hoover, where the inner psychopath strides out on the warpath in pursuit of Communists. There's the scene where Hoover sits opposite Bobby Kennedy and they clash over Hoover's personal bugbear. But the scenes where Hoover colludes personally with numerous presidents to justify the use of clandestine robberies and, especially, telephone taps, are missing from the film. Phone taps were one of Hoover's main instruments in his crusade against largely imagined enemies but there was no law in the United States that could justify them; Hoover operated under the radar for decades, amassing a staggering amount of information illegally and in real life he justified these activities by telling himself and others that the president had told him it was ok to go ahead.

By reading a book such as Tim Weiner's 2012 Enemies: A History of the FBI you can know that this collusive and secret behaviour touched on presidents in power from the time of Roosevelt, including Roosevelt himself. There was no congressional imprimatur or oversight because Hoover went out of his way to keep his activities hidden from politicians who might not share his personal obsessions. It was much easier to have a quiet word with the president, he calculated, than to open up his strategies and tactics for debate on the floor of the House and the Senate. But there is nothing so explicit in the film. Yes, we see Bobby Kennedy trying to get Hoover to focus the FBI's attention on the Mob while Hoover is shown trying to get approval to keep following Commies. But Hoover disobeyed more attorneys general than this one in his unrelenting quest to stigmatise people who held beliefs different from his own, including homosexuals. For decades Hoover was, in reality, a rogue operator using illegal methods to persecute people who he merely suspected of criminality.

This staggering fact is not touched on in the film except obliquely, as if this aspect of Hoover was a regrettable foible in a man who otherwise merits our esteem. But it was Hoover's surreptitious working methods that led directly to the biggest political scandal of the 20th Century. The methods used by Nixon's personal spy unit were the same methods the FBI had long used, and the unit was in fact an offshoot of the FBI. Methods Nixon's spies used to undermine his political opponents, and that so scandalised America, were so routine within Hoover's FBI that to list them would require a fat book like Weiner's.

There are other fat books that merit our attention, just as other big, long movies would need to be made to adequately describe a person of such gross immorality as Hoover. You'd need a better actor than DiCaprio to show the swollen ego and ingrained corruption of Hoover as an old man, something along the lines of Colonel Walter E. Kurtz, who was played by Marlon Brando in Francis Ford Coppola's far superior portrait of human monstrosity, Apocaplypse Now (1979). Eastwood's movie elaborately pretties up a corpse, in fact, and not very convincingly. The retro authenticity gets in the way. The focus on Hoover's sexuality diverts our attention from bigger fish. And so this film stands as an apologia for Hoover and the organisation he was so deeply involved in building, and that crashed with a sickening thud to earth when the reality of its activities was finally revealed to the world in the mid-70s. In this way the film seems to me to be a complete failure, and an expensive one.

Other films warrant making, such as one that could look at the history of violence in America, which should include some analysis of the type of anarchist attacks that appear at the opening of J. Edgar. Such attacks predate WWI by a long way but today most people are unaware of the circumstances within which they existed even if they know they happened. Which is unlikely. But to make such a film you would have to put a number of important people and institutions under the lens of scrutiny. You would have to, in fact, talk about the real consequences of unbridled capitalism, income inequality, and the true motivations of people holding progressive political views. In today's America, such analysis seems unlikely to get a run. It would cut too close to the bone for comfort. Better to entertain the mob with salacious rumours about gay sex than inquire into the real forces that drive America forward into its troubled future.

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