Friday, December 2, 2011

Villains & Heroes: J. Edgar

I would like to start out by saying two positive things about the film, because it's going to go all down-hill from there. The cast, especially Mr. Leonardo DiCaprio, did exceptionally well in their roles: there were very few moments when I realized it was Leonardo DiCaprio playing J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for 37 years, so complete was Mr. DiCaprio's transformation and his ability to hold-up his performance. Naomi Watts and Judi Dench were exceptionally good in their small but important roles as well (it's difficult for even the best actor to pull off a scene by his or herself; you always have to have someone good to work off of). Armie Hammer, who you may remember from The Social Network and who plays the prince who has to be rescued in the upcoming Julia Roberts' take on Snow White, Mirror, Mirror, did a good job as well.
 The second compliment I would like to give to Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is that it makes you think about what you believe and why, you are constantly being pulled back and forth in what you think about security and the sacrifices we have to make for the sake of safety; in the first 30 minutes of the film, especially, I thought this was done very well; after the first 30 minutes, however, it becomes an accusation: anyone who wants to be safe in this country has something wrong with them, anyone who is afraid of invasion or concerned for their well-being and that of their family's is paranoid and probably a hypocrite.
Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio on the set of J. Edgar.
I was somehow under the impression that Mr. Eastwood was politically conservative; however, that does not appear to be the case, especially in this film; Mr. Eastwood is on record describing himself as a "political nothing," regarding party affiliation or leanings and, in J. Edgar, you see that: he flings mud at everyone and doesn't seem to have any courage to occupy any position of his own. As I have said, a history film is never ever never ever never ever ever about history: it is always about the here and now, about us, not about someone else or those historical events; everything from history is adapted for the needs of today to show us something about ourselves.
J. Edgar Hoover as a young man at the scene of a communist bombing.
I am a great fan of Mr. Eastwood's 1992 western Unforgiven (Whores Casting Stones: Unforgiven) but it was the 2004 drama Million Dollar Baby which made me upset and start doubting his ability to utilize the sophisticated technique of film to convey a meaningful message. When Frankie Dunn (Eastwood) gives Maggie (Hilary Swank) a lethal dosage in the hospital so she'll die, she's being compared to a dog mentioned earlier in the film that needed to be put down and the audience is supposed to assume that this is an act of mercy towards her. In J. Edgar, the blurred morals are even worse.
In this scene, a ladder found at the scene of the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping, is being analyzed under Hoover's directives. Before Hoover, such a thing as criminal science didn't exist. The wood of the ladder is analyzed, then taken apart; the analyst tells Hoover that every saw blade makes a different cut and he needs to find the one which cut that timber. Writing to all the mills, he's actually able to find the right saw, figure out the purchase date and the general area where the kidnapper lived, leading them to capture him.
Why am I so upset?
Three things, specifically.
First, the dragging through the mud of Hoover and other national leaders such as John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt. Secondly, the way homosexuals are depicted and thirdly Mr. Eastwood's inability to find anything good to say about anyone or anything, and that's important.
J. Edgar and his mother played by the incomparable Judi Dench. There is an interesting note: at the beginning of the film, she's gone to a fortune teller who reveals to her that she needs to buy a new dress because her husband is going to die soon. We assume this is the senile looking old man sitting on their front porch, but nearly half-way through the film, reference is made to him verifying that the fortune-teller was wrong on that account because he's still alive, but she appears to have been accurate about Edgar rising to become a powerful man in the country. When Edgar proposes to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) he tells her that it doesn't matter that they have only been on three dates, he knows her and believes she will be a good wife; it's as if he himself has become the fortune-teller (and other incidents in the film, his uncanny ability to know things about people). The "father not dying" is symbolically important because it references the Founding Fathers during the Roaring Twenties, after the end of World War I, and what people believed were going to happen to the country.
First off: the film basically assumes that everyone is gay.
The writer for J. Edgar, Dustin Lance Black, a former Mormon, seems to write nothing but homosexual scripts, including Sean Penn's 2008 film Milk about California's first openly gay elected official. This is the point: there is no evidence that Hoover was gay or even bisexual (Hoover's biographer contends anyone advancing his homosexuality was paid to say incriminating things against him because, being director of the FBI, he would have been too clever, if anything, to be caught in a compromising situation). If he was gay, if there were open, verifiable evidence that would be different; but utilizing a person's intimate life to advance a political agenda, especially one the deceased would be against if they were still alive, is a sin; when there is no evidence to back it up and there is evidence to the contrary, then that's a crime.
This is perhaps the most disturbing scene in the film, for me, anyway. Clyde Tolson, left, and Hoover, right, are vacationing at the races and have adjoining suites to save money. They are preparing to retire for the evening and are visiting when Hoover tells Clyde that he's seeing Dorothy Lamour and thinks he's going to marry her; Clyde gets violently upset, throwing things and physically fighting with Hoover, forces him onto the ground and kisses him. Standing up, Hoover threatens him to never do that again, and Clyde threatens him to never have a lady-friend again.
But Mr. Black and Mr. Eastwood aren't content to merely accuse Mr. Hoover, they want to paint all of Washington as being gay (again, if they were gay, that is one thing, but this is the first time I have seen any evidence suggesting these people are). In the picture below, for example, Hoover is in a meeting with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy, going over tapes of President John F. Kennedy's supposed homosexual affair with a German ambassador. There's a scene of Hoover dictating a letter to be sent to Martin Luther King Jr. implicating him of "unnatural acts" so he won't accept the Nobel Peace Prize; there is a letter written by a female reporter to Eleanor Roosevelt about their lesbian relationship, and President Roosevelt just putting it off to the side. What's so dangerous about this--besides smearing mud over everyone for the sake of smearing mud--is the proof supposedly comes from the "secret Hoover files," destroyed after his death, of which only a few traces remain. If they were destroyed, but Mr. Black is basing his script off of them, then he's creating unfounded lies and intentionally ruining the legacy of these national leaders, all of them because not only is there no proof--only destroyed files--but the legitimacy of any evidence in those files can't be tested.
Left is Bobby Kennedy, Attorney General, and Hoover in a meeting.
Given Mr. Black's agenda of writing about gay politics, it should not be surprising why I am upset in my second point. I am upset by the way homosexuals are depicted. As a Catholic, I adhere to the U.S. Bishop's Conference which concluded that regardless of whether homosexuality is a biological or social condition, as single hetrosexuals are called to a chaste and celibate lifestyle, so homosexuals are called to exercise chastity and celibacy as well. J. Edgar undermines their dignity as humans and the cross they are called to bear in their spiritual and social lives. Supposedly, Mr. Eastwood is pro-homosexual "marriage," but after the way he treats people of whom there is no evidence that they were gay/bi-sexual and those who were gay, I don't think his undermining of their dignity is a victory for anyone.
 
Dinner with Ginger Rogers and her mother, Clyde to the far right.
Hoover and Clyde have dinner with Ginger Rogers and her mother, who wants to dance with him and Hoover gets very nervous and quickly leaves. Talking to his mother that night (Judi Dench), he tells her that he doesn't like dancing with women and she asks him about "Daffy," a little boy he grew up with. It comes out that "Daffy," was found by the janitor wearing a hoop skirt and curly wig and, for his punishment, he was forced to stand outside the school dressed like that; they called him "Daffy" because it was short for "daffodil." Six weeks later he shot himself to death. She then proceeds to teach him how to dance. Later in the film, when he and Clyde are vacationing and they are in their room together, Hoover takes a bunch of flowers, holding them up behind his head and making fun of a woman's hat; symbolically, this action is supposed to "link" him to "Daffy." After his mother's death, he puts on a string of her beads and then puts on her dress while looking at himself in the mirror (I think this is a veiled reference to Roman Polanski's 1976 drama The Tenant). Symbolically, we can say that Hoover is wanting to be a mother to America the way his mother was to him, but the way it constructs the relationship between Hoover and Clyde won't allow that.
Teaching Hoover how to dance in her room.
Lastly, there is nothing good anywhere in this film. As I said, criminal science didn't exist before Hoover started innovating ways to catch criminals; between Mr. Black and Mr. Eastwood,, it makes the catching of crooks seem like a crime. I am not the only one who has noticed that Mr. Eastwood seems to be employing the same traps which he accuses Hoover of, and anything good which Hoover did, Eastwood is quick to make it look like he actually failed or was doing it for his own ego, such as the capture of the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby, the cataloging of fingerprints, the deporting of radicals who wanted to turn this country communist, all of that were things Hoover did to protect this country but, to Mr. Black and Mr. Eastwood, they are sins and crimes.
Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover's secretary, holding his cue cards.
At a time when our deficit is out of control, political parties are at each others throats, can't/won't get anything done and the world is falling into bankruptcy, it would have been nice to have a film that inspired, that gave us courage and reminded us that we have done great things in the past and we will do great things in the future; Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Black, however, have failed on all accounts, and have, instead, succeeded in mocking everyone, everything and making it seem like a very base and immoral thing to love your country. Congratulations to them, both, because in J. Edgar, there are no heroes, only villains, and the biggest villains are the ones behind the camera.
Clyde, Hoover and his mother watching a film about the FBI. I may never watch another Clint Eastwood film after this.