Friday, November 4, 2011

Of power and suppression -- "J. Edgar"



How do we present history? How do we even sit down and begin to recount our own personal lives, let alone connect ourselves to the broader tapestry surrounding us? This is a core question of "J. Edgar," one that is alternately summoned to the fore and relegated to the background. For a historical drama interpreting the life of one of 20th century America's most complicated figures, it is also a core dilemma, torn at the core between the intellectualizing of the screenwriter and the polished traditionalism of the director.

This is arguably Clint Eastwood's strongest movie since "Letters from Iwo Jima" (but considering my increasingly lukewarm feelings towards his three subsequent films, does that tell you much?), and it exhibits in equal push and pull the workmanlike director's best and worst qualities. There's the trademark polished/overblown/very shadowy cinematography from Tom Sterns, the measured editing beats of Joel Cox, the production design of James J. Murakami, costumes courtesy Deborah Hopper, and that equally uplifting and dissonant piano music -- if anything can be said of late-Eastwood, it's a remarkably coherent visual style that is pretty to look at but somewhat artistically empty, locked in a world of its own good intentions.

The dark inner offices of J. Edgar Hoover, never changing even as Leonardo DiCaprio alternates through many stages of make-up (perhaps the film's most crowning achievement. I increasingly marveled at the transformations of the principals over the course of the film), and the recurring night clubs and bedrooms all add to a sense of continuous visual space for a drastically uneven man, but it also depletes life out of the film in many of the less interesting dramatic moments. There's a sense that Eastwood, as competent a craftsman as he is, simply isn't interested in using the cinema beyond its ostensible Hollywood style. That's neither a compliment nor an insult -- it is what it is.

The far more important element is screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, penning his major follow-up to the Oscar-winning "Milk." Where I found "Milk" an incredible piece of character/historical writing marred to an inspirational discourse on the evolution of the gay movement, "J. Edgar" seems to trade in the passion for a more brooding, if no less intellectual, view of history. It's an original screenplay, meaning Black's interpretation should be viewed all his own. While many of the ideas in the film -- how to combat an ideology, assessing self-worth, creating a legacy, the changing face of American politics -- are all interesting, none resonate more than the homosexual reading Black gives Hoover.

Working off the whispers of Hoover as a closeted cross-dresser, Black's treatment of him as a man incredibly torn by his sexuality should be the film's selling point. This might be because it puts the film's shining element -- Armie Hammer -- front and center. While Hammer was barbed in literal twin roles in last year's "The Social Network," here he exudes such a basic humanity, an amazing sense of heart largely missing from the rest of the film's largely caustic and empty emotional impact. Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, Hoover's companion and potential lover. On the other end is Judi Dench in a somewhat underwritten role as Edgar's suppressive mother. It's this devotion to his mother's ideal of him that confuses and suppresses Edgar, forcing him to erect a model of masculinity that conforms to his idea of the American Male.

"J. Edgar" is at its best when it stops being a biopic and starts investigating its principal character. Detours like the investigation into the Lindbergh baby kidnapping are interesting enough, but they feel too procedural compared to moments where Hoover remarks on how the changing representation of the Feds in the cinema in the 30s helped mark a shift in their representation for the nation. The film rather obliquely teases out the idea of Man as Construction, and Hoover as an amalgamation of self-imposed ideas that work to suppress this other, more feminized form. Similarly, DiCaprio only obliquely approaches the character; his impersonation is rather grating and uneven, but there are several key scenes where he hits the multi-dimensionality of the character.

It's a wholly uneven film torn constantly between multiple ideas about itself. When it works, it can best be described as a meditation on how suppression leads to constructions of power as the ultimate masculine ideal, and the neuroses that take over when that ideal is pursued. When it doesn't, it's a rather static little period piece with interesting episodes, some big dramatic moments, and little else.

Perhaps J. Edgar Hoover, with his 50 years of service in the FBI, was just too much of a mythology to dissect in 137 minutes. The stilted flashback structure from the later decades of his life to the earlier certainly only work about half the time, as Edgar is trying to "write his own history," and the payoff to this comes a little too late to work through what could otherwise be a rather remarkable treatise on memory and history. When Black lets himself interpret Hoover's life to suit his own arguments about masculinity in the first half of the 20th century, and Eastwood's visuals simply relax a little bit instead of trying to get those formalized visuals so pretty, the film shines.

If only there was more of a spark to drive forward the critical arguments "J. Edgar" wants to make about the establishment and propagation of a federal law enforcement agency. It circles continuously around a very remarkable argument about masculine posturing and homosexual suppression, but its glamorous visuals and biopic conventions betray the better points of this argument.

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