Saturday 21 January 2012

Every which way but loose: "J. Edgar"

J.Edgar is a film about a man who couldn't change his spots, from a filmmaker proving he can. Clint Eastwood's biopic of the FBI head spans a full five decades, from the late 1910s (when Hoover, as an eager-beaver boy detective, raced to the scene of an anarchist bomb attack on his bike) to the early 70s (when he first began to dictate the memoirs that cue the film's multiple flashbacks, the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black preserving a structuring device that worked for him in 2008's Milk). As played, both as a young man and an oldtimer, by Leonardo diCaprio, Hoover becomes a continuation of The Aviator's Howard Hughes: another in the actor's growing repertory of unworldly cranks and shut-ins, and a germophobe to boot, paranoically wiping his palms with a Kleenex whenever custom dictated he shook hands.

A formative sequence, unfolding at some point in the 1920s, has the upstart Hoover going against the advice of his mother (Judi Dench) and taking Bureau secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on their first date to view the vast archive of filing cards he's accrued, each one holding the details of a suspect in the anarchists' bombing campaign. When she responds politely to his enthusiasms, he drops down on one knee, and proposes; wisely, she turns him down - and he promptly hires her as his personal assistant (or next best thing to a wife) for life, partly as a way of hiding his total embarrassment: the first of myriad cover-ups he would come to be involved in, and the last risk, heterosexual or professional, he would come to take.

The film observes Hoover becoming every bit as entrenched politically: by the late 50s, he's haranguing Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) - part of the new wave sweeping through Washington - about the (non-existent) threat posed by Communist agents embedded in American suburbia, and we grasp that he represents that jumpy, easily riled sector of the U.S. Establishment (a long tradition of infamy, leading from Hoover to Don Rumsfeld and Glenn Beck) who will forever be looking out for Reds, and other boogeymen, under the nation's beds. Hoover's worldview was constructed in his teens, when his Bureau mentor Mitchell Palmer's home was among those rocked by the anarchist bombings, and would harden only further in the wake of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping: after Luc Besson's recent The Lady, it's the second biopic in a moment to posit that our politics are almost always forged on the homefront. At all points, he appears as much a zealot as those he was pursuing: when G-men finally kick down the doors of an anarchist hideout, they discover... yes, filing cabinets, filled with the details of potential targets.

Eastwood stages the drama in handsome, muted browns, blacks and whites, which seems about apt for a man who largely saw the world without colour - and was thus likely to perceive anything so bold as red as an even greater threat to stability. (Between diCaprio here and Viggo Mortensen in the upcoming A Dangerous Method, the season's must-have accessory for leading men are clearly light-repelling contact lenses.) What colour there is comes in an intriguing romantic subplot, suggesting once again how opposites might attract: spurned by Gandy, the squat, largely sexless Hoover would eventually grow enamoured with bright young thing Clyde Tolson, who - in an early flourish - provides his boss with a whole new wardrobe after one of his lines of credit runs dry on a shopping expedition.

The witty, self-aware Tolson is the kind of guy a man might well shop, dine and gossip with; nicely played by Armie Hammer, he brings a lightness to Hoover's mostly monochromatic universe. When J. Edgar ventures that having a hand-carved wooden sign installed outside the Bureau's newly installed fingerprinting division will prove something to his superiors, Tolson retorts: "What, our decorating skills?" The source of conflict between these two is that Hoover, beholden to secrecy, cannot publicly admit his love: in this particular field, he wasn't so much a shut-in as outright closeted. This is unlikely territory for a Clint Eastwood film, to say the least, and we have the openly gay Black to thank for it; from the collaboration, Eastwood appears newly energised, avoiding the archaisms that have marred his past decade's work.

The old, dourly conservative Clint would most likely have perceived Hoover as someone who got the job done, despite the revulsion and contempt he was widely held in - the lawmaker who would set down the parameters within which a Coogan or Harry Callahan might work. Yet J. Edgar, while acknowledging the vast advances in forensic investigation its subject contributed to, isn't afraid of portraying Hoover as a stuck-in-his-ways laughing stock, fuddy-duddy even before he reached the age of 40. A newsreel showing him lambasting the gangsters "Bugs" Moran and Al Capone is booed off the screen by cinemagoers who cheer the antics of James Cagney in the notionally cautionary The Public Enemy; later, he endures public humiliation at a Senate hearing when it's pointed out this firmly desk-bound individual has painted himself as a tommy gun-wielding hero in a series of Bureau-produced comics. diCaprio gives Hoover a toothy delight upon learning he's made the cover of a cereal box: even shut-ins long to be celebrated in some way, no matter that they may not have the disposition for it. (Black has unearthed a nice anecdote that sees J. Edgar getting in a terrible fluster when Ginger Rogers' mother asks him to dance: men this stiff do not tango.)

J. Edgar is far from a flawless film. It's stuck from the word go with especially duff latex ageing make-up - the kind of thing the movies almost never get right, especially when applied to such prime slabs of American manhood as diCaprio and Hammer. (It looks especially risible on the latter, last seen as the buff rower(s) in The Social Network - but then it would be a stretch for anyone to go from Winklevi to Wilford Brimley, from Olympic-standard stroke rates to, well, simply having a stroke.) diCaprio, who's learnt over the past decade how to hold the screen with tiny, subliminal flickers of intelligence, nails certain key moments - the hate in Hoover's eyes as he watches Martin Luther King collecting his Nobel Peace Prize on TV, a should-be-absurd scene where he dresses in his mother's clothing (this was the era of Norman Bates and Psycho, after all) - yet overall strikes you as somehow not quite right for the role: too boyish, still, which mattered less when he was playing Hughes (and perhaps explains why the latex department were obliged to work overtime), and too mainstream a presence for the oddball the film insists Hoover was. (Imagine a J. Edgar played by Michael Shannon, particularly after Boardwalk Empire.)

The core, however, is rock solid. As everything from his turn-of-the-century crime thrillers (True Crime, Blood Work, Mystic River: all warm-up work) to 2008's Changeling demonstrated, Eastwood - a veteran of the studio system - knows how to assemble a supporting cast, and J. Edgar's lower ranks spill over with deft, termite-y, enjoyable descriptions of men in suits: Josh Lucas as Lindbergh, Dermot Mulroney as a tough-talking detective who wants none of Hoover's B.S., even a remotely convincing Nixon, within the pantomime parameters of the role. The history - from Emma Goldman to the JFK assassination - is sincere, fascinating and, whether macro or micro, remains pertinent to the America of today: Black even gives Hoover a disastrous coming-out scene, which ends with Ma Hoover saying she'd "rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son".

The shock there lies in hearing Dench, the star of countless genteel period dramas, spitting these words out. A corrective to The Iron Lady, and Eastwood's most radical venture for some four decades, J. Edgar is unexpectedly attuned to the dangers of conservatism, of not keeping an open heart and mind at moments of immense social change. I should issue a spoiler alert for what follows, but Black writes two endings, and each is telling. A belated reconciliation between Hoover and Tolson, capped by a septuagenarian gay kiss, is Clint demonstrating - in an age when our cowboys find their freedom on Brokeback Mountain - that anything is possible (and, to these eyes, more convincing than Christopher Plummer's late-life liberation in Beginners); cynics and sceptics will have to make do with Hoover alone in his office stronghold, seeing in the reign of Nixon, perhaps the only 20th century U.S. figure more paranoid than himself. Both a call for openness and a warning from history, this is a rare biopic to use its subject as an object lesson in how not to live your life.

J. Edgar is in cinemas nationwide.

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