Monday, May 27, 2013

Clint Eastwood and Lance Black on J. Edgar Hoover

J. Edgar is not a great film, but Clint Eastwood’s 137 minute biopic of the legendary FBI director is a surprisingly touching look at a man who doesn’t usually inspire sympathy. Those critics who call it a love story are correct, but since neither Hoover nor his lifelong companion, Clyde Tolson, are comfortable expressing their affection, the film implodes with repressed emotions. The rumors that Hoover was gay are pretty much accepted as fact in Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay, but one assumes (at least I do) that the questions about Hoover’s sexuality were the main attraction for the openly gay screenwriter of Milk.

Hoover was far from open-minded on sexual matters and forbade homosexuals from serving in the FBI, but he lived with his mother until her death, never married, rarely if ever dated women, and had a friendship with another man that aroused suspicions that became more widely considered after his death in 1972. By then, sacred cows were being slaughtered with glee owing to anger over the Vietnam War and the abuses of the Johnson and Nixon administrations. Hoover abused his power, too, by wiretapping Martin Luther King, whom Hoover regarded as a Communist, and blackmailing presidents, however subtly, as when he reveals to FDR that his wife is having an affair, but saving the most damning information - that Eleanor Roosevelt was romantically involved with another woman - just in case he may need it later to protect his position.

Hoover’s life could have inspired a very different movie. As the nation’s leading crime fighter, Hoover could have been the subject of a rip-roaring action film. Oliver Stone would likely have done it with more razzmatazz and some rock tunes on the soundtrack during the scenes set in the ‘60s. Eastwood has given us a quiet film but with more emotional depth. Like the man at its center, it’s somewhat repressed, seemingly holding back at times, but it’s beautifully crafted. Although it relies on the somewhat contrived device of having Hoover telling his story to a prospective biographer (alas, no such biography, “as told to” or otherwise, ever appeared), it avoids another pitfall of the “biopic” by shifting back and forth from the past to the present rather than offering a straight-forward narrative.

Leonardo DiCaprio may not be the perfect choice to play the stout and rather plain looking Hoover, but as he did as Howard Hughes in The Aviator, his performance makes you forget outward appearances. Armie Hammer is equally impressive as Tolsen. One little drawback is Eastwood’s score. Come on, Clint! Stop composing those dreary melancholy piano-driven themes for your films and hire a real composer to add power to the emotional scenes. Like Eastwood’s scores for Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, the music in J. Edgar barely registers.

Brian W. Fairbanks
November 11, 2011

© 2011 Brian W. Fairbanks


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