Clint Eastwood’s last film Hereafter was perhaps his most underrated, and one of the most meaningful illustrations of his worldview. For decades now, he’s been known for his film-making pragmatism, for getting close enough and moving on: Hereafter implicitly proposed this as a way of coping with the existential questions that tie many of us up in knots. It’s a tale of the supernatural, and by its nature presents some aspect of belief in the beyond as being “real,” but you’ll never see a movie so unenthused by such discoveries. It plants itself in earthly dilemmas and machinations, to an extent you might regard as dawdling, or more constructively as deliberately immersing us in the often arbitrary but inescapable detail of the earthly structures we’ve built for ourselves.
Eastwood’s new picture J. Edgar continues his remarkable late-career survey of those earthly structures – two films about World War Two, one on Mandela, and now the career of J. Edgar Hoover, legendary leader of the FBI for almost half a century. The outlines of Hoover’s legacy are fairly well-known – he modernized the bureau, achieving a personal degree of (carefully crafted) fame from skirmishes against John Dillinger and other glamorous law-breakers, but became increasingly controversial over the decades, out of step with changing times, but safe in his position if only because of the dirt he’d accumulated on everyone else in power. He never married, but maintained an exceedingly close relationship with his right hand man Clyde Tolson; the two ate virtually all their meals together, took joint vacations and suchlike, but the extent of the physicality in their relationship, if any, remains unknown.
J. Edgar encompasses these key points and others in some two and a quarter hours, alternating between Hoover’s final years, as he dictates his memoirs to a succession of young agents, and some of the key building blocks of his legend, in particular the 1930’s kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son. Some reviewers have found it a bit of a slog, for example Rick Groen in The Globe and Mail: “Usually the tautest of directors, Clint Eastwood has gone all slack here, allowing his subject to get completely away from him…despite (Leonardo) DiCaprio’s best efforts, the character never comes alive enough to elicit our sympathy or our disdain. Without that investment, the so-called emotional scenes play out like a dry well.” Groen concludes: “The script tries to make a virtue out of not judging Hoover, asking us to do the job instead. That might be fine, but only if we’re given a reason to care. We aren’t.”
Leaving aside the dubious claim about Eastwood’s customary “tautness,” I think you could pretty much take these comments as a description of the film’s success, rather than an indictment of its failure. The picture, indeed, has a sealed-off, brooding quality, often a sense of incomprehension: it starts by deliberately disorienting us, plunging us into the heart of a narrative as if we’d missed the start of a story already in progress, and regularly skipping connective material that might have been considered crucial. It’s never clear whether Hoover’s major innovations – such as his enthusiasm for finger-printing and other forms of scientific analysis – are driven by unusual insight or by geekiness that happened to get lucky. Likewise, his insistence on sharp suits and a clean-cut appearance make for good PR, but are probably based in neurosis as much as strategy. In part, of course, such uncertainty is just a function of the inherent unreliability of history and reportage, a theme Eastwood explored in Flags of our Fathers and underlines (maybe a bit too emphatically) at the end of J. Edgar.
But his Hoover isn’t just a pawn in another game of distorting mirrors: for better or worse, he’s one of the pivotal figures in the construction of present-day America. As he gets older, he increasingly rails against the threat of a “condition of immorality that surpasses the imagination,” but again, it’s impossible to determine how much coherence underlies this diagnosis. Certainly some of its manifestations – like his obsessive hatred of Martin Luther King – seem unrooted in any rational analysis (the film leaves it open how much it’s based in simple racism). Eastwood doesn’t push the comparison, but this murkiness about the rationality of authority resonates heavily against more recent events, for example the way a barely articulated “war on terror” could have grown to smother all other policy concerns, regardless of the real relative threat: his Hoover isn’t so much a historical anomaly as a grim transitional figure.
Don’t ask, don’t tell
You can even extend that analysis to his personal arrangements with Tolson. As depicted, their life constitutes an application of “don’t ask, don’t tell,” even in private. In his initial job interview, Tolson appears on the edge of flirting, and the movie seems to be suggesting he would have been capable of a more open structure. But Hoover certainly wasn’t. As a young man, the film shows him to be earnest and emotionally unsophisticated, proposing to a co-worker (played by Naomi Watts) after just a handful of dates; when she refuses, he just as happily offers her a position as his personal secretary (where she remains for his entire career). Except for a weird flirtation of sorts with Dorothy Lamour, that might almost constitute the sum of his interest in women. The film suggests his arrangement with Tolson constituted his ungainly, intermittently agonized attempt to reconcile the impossible, and it's quite touching in its portrayal of the two as old men, certainly allowing us to read this as a story of sad lifelong denial (or to adapt the old Woody Allen joke, as a story of Hoover doing to the nation what he couldn’t let himself do to Tolson). But it’s also a precursor of our greater contemporary flexibility in how we think about relationships, or define sexuality, or love, or normality.
DiCaprio, often looking rather like Orson Welles as the older Citizen Kane, conveys Hoover’s heavy soul with great control and restraint; if, as Groen says, he never comes completely alive, well, who knows if he completely was alive. Early on we see him watching FDR’s inauguration parade from his office window, suddenly waving effusively as if insisting on his own place in this event, even imagining himself at its centre. Years later, he watches Nixon’s motorcade from the same spot, but desolately, without any such illusions. Again, it’s an old idea, that one can be much lonelier near (but not near enough) to the centre of power than outside it. But Eastwood takes the notion to an almost cosmic extent, causing us to question whether we know anything at all about the control and direction of the nation, or the morals on which it’s supposedly built. Being Eastwood, he’s very quiet and matter-of-fact about it, but after this and Hereafter, there’s not a whole lot of importance he’s left untouched.