Sunday, November 13, 2011

J. Edgar (2011)

The most gripping portrait of J. Edgar Hoover that I know of unfolds over the three volumes of James Ellroy's Underworld USA trilogy. Ellroy's Hoover is a bureaucratic Iago, an all-seeing all-knowing master manipulator. Like Satan--at least the Protestant idea of Satan to which Ellroy likely owes some debt--his gift is that he knows every man's weakness, every man's secret, every man's breaking point.

The irony, of course, is that Ellroy is a novelist and his J. Edgar Hoover is a work of fiction. Perhaps it is fitting, though. After all, who really knew Hoover? He was a colossal figure in American life for four decades, but this man who knew the darkest secrets of Presidents, judges, legislators, and civic leaders was himself largely a fictional creation of his own design. Hoover the crusading crime buster was in actuality an effete, squat little man who sat behind a desk. This icon of American virtue disdained the company of regular people and spent much of his time locked in a private office in the heart of Washington DC assembling blackmail recordings of politicians and civil rights leaders.

Of course, these days Hoover's reputation has been sullied by revelations about his attempts to bring down the Civil Rights movement--and in particular Martin Luther King Jr. Hoover thought that by taping King's extramarital liaisons he'd uncovered a fatal flaw. History has rendered a different judgment. King was a great man, but he was a man, unfaithful to his wife but instrumental in leading the most successful social revolution in our nation's history. His greatness only seems enhanced by the knowledge of his all too human limitations. Meanwhile, Hoover, the petty government official who tried to destroy a people's march for equality is remembered as a fossil of an earlier time. When he died, he passed on the mantle of reactionary paranoia to Richard Nixon, ensuring that the history of America during this time would continue to be written on scratchy reel-to-reel.

What drove Hoover? What combination of influences made the man? Director Clint Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and star Leonardo DiCaprio have taken up the task of answering these questions. For years, rumors floated through Washington about Hoover's 'unusual' relationship with his handsome second-in-command Clyde Tolson (played winningly in the film by Armie Hammer). The two men, both lifelong bachelors, were inseparable, ate every meal together, vacationed together at lavish hotels in the summers, and dressed in matching suits. When Hoover died, he left his estate to Tolson, and Tolson received the flag off Hoover's casket and moved into his home. These facts, naturally, gave rise to speculation. Could J. Edgar Hoover, the master of secrets, the tormentor of any number of homosexual left-wingers (indeed, it might well have been Hoover more than anyone else who helped to foster the idea that homosexuality and Communism went had in hand)--could this man have lived a double life?

Naturally, this mystery has led to some outlandish treatments (most notoriously in 1977's THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER). Happily, Eastwood and company are uninterested in the sordid details of unsubstantiated rumors. Instead, J. EDGAR tells two stories. One story is of Hoover's lifelong consolidation of power. This is a story well worth telling. After all, Hoover was an unelected official who probably exerted more power in Washington DC than any one person over the course of forty tumultuous years. His private obsessions--with Communism, with Civil Rights, with the Kennedy brothers--unquestionably shaped American life. In Eastwood's film, Hoover is a man always peering suspiciously out on a dangerous world. DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who runs all incoming data--be it political or personal, monumental or insignificant--through his own private ethical equation. His one real passion is for power, a passion that springs from a deep need for control.

The other story is his unconsummated love affair with Tolson. Here the film treads lightly, as perhaps it should. In the end, we really don't know what relationship these two men had. (The problem here is believing that J. Edgar Hoover would have ever felt safe enough to think of himself as gay, much less to actually have sex. This is a guy who had all of America under surveillance.) Eastwood's handling of Black's script on this point is, of all things, surprisingly moving. Hoover in this film is a man who cannot begin to approach the center of himself. He's helplessly in love with Tolson, but he's also devoid of any means of expressing it. The most passionate moment between the two men comes on one of their holidays together when a conversation turns to an argument and then leads to a fight which then leads to a kiss. The kiss itself--more full of fear and frustration than love--is the only one they share. Later in the film there's a tender scene where an aging Hoover gently kisses an ailing Tolson on the forehead. Only in anger or in old age, the film implies, could Hoover bring himself to admit his feelings for Tolson, however obliquely. He was a true closet case, a man unknown to himself.

Eastwood is an interesting director. He is, in many ways, wildly uneven.
He's made movies that are excellent (THE BRIDGES OF MADISON COUNTY, A PERFECT WORLD), including one film (UNFORGIVEN) that is a masterpiece. He's made films that have been vastly overrated (such as MILLION-DOLLAR BABY which, despite Hilary Swank's genuinely wonderful performance is a shallow treatment of serious issues). And he's made films of thudding banality (INVICTUS, MIDNIGHT IN THE GARDEN OF GOOD AND EVIL) which resemble nothing more than tired hackwork. His tendency toward oversimplifying conflicts means that if ambiguity does not exist in his antagonists at the script level, he rarely sees fit to inject it into the film.

One admirable aspect of J. EDGAR, however, is that it doesn't have any villains, not even the man himself. This will likely incense audience members who want to see Hoover burned in effigy. The sound of a gently tinkling piano beneath the moment of tenderness between the elderly Hoover and Tolson will perhaps strike some folks as sentimental. But the strength of Eastwood's film, and one assumes of the script by Black, is that it makes an honest attempt to conceive of Hoover as a human being. A deeply flawed human being, one who might have done evil things, but a man nevertheless. Hoover doubtless would have hated this movie and tried to crush the lives of everyone involved in its making, but it nevertheless turns the rough facts and central mystery of his life into a engrossing two hours at the movies.

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