Eastwood’s movies weave a European mentality into our American mainstream. In Europe, in France especially, they are less anal about the three act structure, the protagonist’s arc, the “perfect” movie. The best European films seldom adhere to those rules. I’d rather see a director take great leaps than one who continually plays it safe, and Eastwood — for all his strengths and weaknesses — never plays it safe. He doesn’t have to. He’s at a place in his career and at an age when he’s sort of over the need to adapt and impress. To that end, he makes movies that are going to be less and less embraced by mainstream audiences. But this is a guy who doesn’t want to make Unforgiven 2 just to collect a paycheck or to relive past positioning in Hollywood: instead, he reasserts his dominance as an individualist director in the last chapter of his life and his career. J. Edgar fits nicely into the latter Eastwood. As opposed to the Mystic River/Million Dollar Baby, this is more Letters from Iwo Jima/Changeling/Hereafter Eastwood. For many of you that will be frustrating. But for those of us who appreciate his continual evolution, the broader statements he seems to be communicating about the human experience, J. Edgar will be yet another gnarled branch in this, Eastwood’s tree of life.
It’s hard to know what people will ultimately make of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar. The first thing I heard about it was in a screening of another film. A well-connected film journalist said “I heard from a friend who saw J. Edgar that it was awful, awful, awful. Armie Hammer is good but everything else…” That rumor kind of traveled around, viral monkey style, and before you knew it, that became the nutshell truthiness, even though it was only a single isolated opinion. So I arrived last night at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art, expecting to see a film purported to be unwatchably bad. But what I saw was a surprisingly moving film and a loving portrait of a misunderstood American icon. That was perhaps the weirdest part: wasn’t I supposed to come out hating Hoover?
Hoover is here portrayed the way Leonardo DiCaprio described in the post-screening Q&A — as a hodgepodge of eccentricities. “We didn’t even fit them all in,” he said. Obsessed with cleanliness, lived with his mother until he was 40, a closeted homosexual. Persistent rumors assume he was a “crossdresser” but the movie refuses to encourage a slur that too easily tags Hoover as a pervert. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wants to humanize his sexuality by showing it for what it apparently was: closeted but true. The insinuation that he was a “crossdesser” has long been a way of kind of writing him off, painting him as a “pervert.” But in fact, the truth is that he was simply gay. He was a gay man in a high public office, at a time when investigating everyone’s secrets made it all the more essential that he reveal none of his own.
The film tells the story of the many decades Hoover ran the FBI, through several Presidents, the funniest of whom had to be Richard M. Nixon. Eastwood reserves his harshest judgment for Nixon, depicting him as an illustration of the kind of evil that can flourish when people are driven by fear. In fact, much is made of the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping, many decades earlier, and how that one crime galvanized the country’s anxieties, and how that fear gave the FBI more freedom. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black said in the Q&A that was one of the ways he felt J. Edgar resonated today. How long has our government been riding on the fear generated by 9/11? And before that, communism.
But if J. Edgar is anything, remarkably, it’s one of the sweetest love stories of the year. DiCaprio’s J. Edgar attaches himself to Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson and we watch the two men through various stages of age and shared experience, all the while maintaining their commitment to never miss a lunch or a dinner together. J. Edgar’s central relationships in his life included Tolson, his mother (a marvelous Judi Dench) and his secretary, played superbly by Naomi Watts. None of these relationships were sexual. But they were such pillars of support that J. Edgar could not have lived without them. In the end, one cannot help but be moved by that.
J. Edgar is propelled by its story, unfolding choppily in vivid vignettes but with unified purpose by Black, and guided by Eastwood’s assured directing. But what sustains its thrust is DiCaprio in what has to be his deepest, best and most fully-realized performance to date. Yes, the old age makeup is jarring and bizarre at times but once you sink into it you completely forget you’re watching Leo in old age makeup. His shyness, his stuttering, his fear, his desire, his anger — all these play across Leo’s face like a seasonal storm. He’ll easily be nominated. He might very well win.
It’s easy to love J Edgar, the movie; so it’s hard to hate J. Edgar, the man, Maybe that makes me a softie. Maybe that means I don’t know enough about history. Maybe that also makes me an eternal Eastwood apologist. But in a year where there are very few films to feel passionate about, I appreciated this one for going all out and telling a story that needed to be told. Yes, it is profoundly a gay American story — it’s a film that says “this guy was gay and he was important, so isn’t it time to throw open the closet and show it’s not filled with ball-gowns?” It is also a movie that defends Hoover’s right to love the man he loved. It is a look at the underside to help us understand, not unlike Oliver Stone’s Nixon. The two films would go nicely on a double bill.
As for me, I feel lucky to live in a time when I can still watch movies made by Clint Eastwood who will stop making movies sooner rather than later. I’m admiring of the risks they took with this and I’m ready for the onslaught.
So you’re going to want to pencil in… Best Picture? Best Screenplay? Best Actor? Best Makeup? Possibility for any and all. Best Actor, you can write down with ink.