In any other year, I suspect Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar would be all over the award nominations, with Leonardo DiCaprio a strong contender for best actor. As it is, it seems to have been barged out of the way, outclassed by the competition. (The film notched up one nomination at the Globes, for Leo, and has two at the imminent Screen Actors’ Guild awards, one for Leo – where he finds himself up against the expected Clooney, Pitt and Dujardin – the other for his excellent co-star Armie Hammer – who will presumably fall to Plummer or Branagh.) There’s no need for us to cry into our hankies. Clint Eastwood only has to make a film these days to earn an automatic place in the shortlists, and that can be tiresome and predictable. But the reviews for J. Edgar have also been lukewarm. Peter Bradshaw all but took it apart in the Guardian.
I went to see it yesterday with expectations lowered. And it turned out to be rather good. I have a keen interest in 20th century American history, and in US politics in general, and enjoyed seeing 40 years replayed, albeit rather more selectively and thus in more detail, than the comparable time frame covered by The Iron Lady. J. Edgar Hoover ran the Federal Bureau of Investigation from its inception at the Justice Dept in 1935 to his death in 1972, although the film, written by Dustin Lance Black, begins in 1919, when the up-and-coming 24-year-old Hoover was put in charge of a new bureau charged with weeding out radicals. This became his calling.
Because most of his private files were destroyed before the Nixon administration could seize them on his death, much of his story remains speculative, especially the infamous bit about him wearing women’s clothing – something of an own goal for a man whose reputation was built upon the old-fashioned Republican tenets of God-fearing moralism and family values. He never married, and lived with his mother (here played by Judi Dench, whose American accent occasionally wobbles but whose presence is suitably dominant), and Black’s screenplay, while never lurid, makes Hoover out to be quite the repressed “radical and subversive” himself.
His previous film was the excellent Milk, and there are similarities here, in that both are biopics of sexually unconventional political figures – albeit one out, the other closeted – told using the device of the character dictating the story of his own life for posterity. Harvey Milk is seen relaying his memoir into a cassette recorder as if certain of his own looming assassination; Hoover dictates, and embroiders, his to a series of agents at a typewriter, driven to do so by the ill-health of old age. It’s a well-worn framing device, and means both stories are told in flashback, but it helps to arrange the material in a clear and chronological fashion, which is particularly useful if you’re not familiar with the facts. (I knew little about Milk; I know plenty about Hoover.)
What seems to bother a number of critics is the way some aspects of Hoover’s career and character are foregrounded, while others are skipped over. This is built into any biopic lasting shorter than, say, eight hours. The Iron Lady got round it by providing only the most shallow soundbites to ratchet up the career highlights. J. Edgar does so by making the Lindbergh kidnapping and eventual, forensic-driven outcome its central drama, a turning point in Federal law, and in the reputation of the FBI, and thus of Hoover. I found it persuasively staged, and if it meant that less screen time could be devoted to, say, his witch hunts against the likes of Sean Seberg or Charlie Chaplin, or his failure to address the Mafia, well, something had to go. (There is a single scene with Bobby Kennedy, which touches on organised crime, one of the Attorney General’s pet subjects, but its central purpose is really to show that Hoover had to blackmail to keep his job with more moderate administrations.)
There’s no shying away from the fact that Hoover was a poisonous, bigoted hypocrite, but I found Black’s treatment of his career-long platonic love affair with his number two, the energetic and loyal Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, last seen playing both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, and very good indeed here) actually rather sweet. Hoover is a mess of contradictions and repressed feelings, and would rather physically fight Tolson over challenges to his heterosexuality than kiss him, but as the two men age – call the makeup department! – their dotage brings with it a dignified acceptance that they are soul-mates even if they cannot be lovers. In the later scene where DiCaprio takes the top off Hammer’s boiled egg – the latter debilitated by a stroke – you are touched by the carefully controlled affection Hoover is prepared to exhibit in private.
This is not the same, I don’t think, as “humanising” Thatcher by showing her all forgetful and lonely in The Iron Lady. For a start, Hoover’s been dead since 1972, and his brand of red-hunting paranoia has been broadly replaced, while sexual honesty even in America has moved in apace (not least thanks to activists like Harvey Milk in the 1970s, and like Dustin Lance Black in the noughties and beyond). Because Clint Eastwood is a known Republican, it’s somewhat surprising that he would wish to make a biopic about a repressed homosexual who is shown, at one point, sniggering over the wording of a letter from Eleanor Roosevelt to an apparent lesbian lover, but Eastwood has actually made a film about old age, too. When DiCaprio and Hammer are trussed up in half a ton of latex for the Little Britain years – DiCaprio comes off better as an old geezer than Hammer – you really sense that the 80-year-old Eastwood identifies with them. There is a single kiss planted on Tolson’s head by Hoover that almost put a tear in my eye. This does not mean I forgive the man for hounding Martin Luther King and holding successive Presidents to ransom by foul means.
One of the main reasons I have stopped going to America since Bush is that I do not wish to add my fingerprints to the files of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover set that in motion. His legacy is substantial. Anchored by an excellent, well-modulated turn by the Peter Pan of Hollywood, who finally carries some physical weight here, J. Edgar does a decent, if unshowy job of putting Hoover’s place in political history into some kind of personal perspective. And by kind of blaming him on his mother. LGBT activists worried that Eastwood might “de-gay” Black’s story, but he hasn’t, any more than he “de-Japanesed” Letters From Iwo Jima. Maybe he’s just getting a bit liberal in his old age. Something that never happened to Thatcher.
More soul-mates: a quick mention for Crazy, Stupid, Love, which I caught on DVD, and completes the set of Ryan Gosling’s Films of 2011, along with Drive, Blue Valentine and The Ides Of March. I thought I’d like it the least, but I didn’t, it’s actually my third favourite of those four films. This is a romantic comedy with a truly offputting title that conceals a significant dose of actual drama from writers/directors Glenn Ficarra and John Requa, whose first film behind the megaphone was gay true story I Love You Phillip Morris, which in truly professional style, I’ve only seen bits of, on telly, so cannot comment upon in an meaningful way.
The man in Sight & Sound accused the plot of Crazy, Stupid, Love of being “mechanical”, and it is, in that it seems to tell a number of random stories about love – the crazy kind and the stupid kind – which turn out to be interlinked in clever ways. But two of these links were complete surprises to me. I didn’t see either of them coming. So something must be going right. Gosling is the bar shark, whose pickup rate with available women is around 100%. But the star of the film is recent divorcee Steve Carell, whom Gosling takes under his wing and retrains in the art of seduction. Julianne Moore, Emma Stone and Marisa Tomei round out the high-class cast, but it’s good to see Carell dialling down the gurning a bit, and he shows signs of being a decent serious actor here, among all the coincidences and occasional broad, comedic strokes. There’s a scene where one character makes a speech at a public event which was one conventional, forced set-up too many, and some of the minor characters – particularly Emma Stone’s dopey boyfriend – were too much like cutouts compared to the warm-blooded leads, but overall, this was a well-written, offbeat drama.
There’s a running gag in J. Edgar – yes, a gag – about Hoover’s paranoia not about Communist plots, but about his waistline. Two characters refer to his extra bulk as “solid weight.” You expect a historical biopic to carry solid weight, but less so a romantic comedy with a terrible title. Crazy, Stupid, Love bucks that expectation. Give it a spin.