Sunday, 29 January 2012

'J. Edgar' review:

Critics have broadly expressed two major gripes with Clint Eastwood's biopic of notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. The first, and most significant, has been that it's a whitewash: shying away from his rumoured penchant for cross-dressing, coquettishly skirting around the issue of his apparent repressed homosexuality and backing away from any outright criticism of his controversial practices as head of his increasingly powerful state police force, abusing power to his own ambitious ends. In other words it's one of the 20th century's most powerful and influential men given 'The Iron Lady' treatment.

The second complaint has related to the film's heavy use of make-up and prosthetics to allow the eternally youthful Leonardo DiCaprio to play Hoover throughout his life - a decision which has been accused of burying an otherwise fine performance. On this point I agree at least partially. Armie Hammer (as lover and FBI deputy Clyde Tolson) and Naomi Watts (as life-long secretary Helen Gandy) join DiCaprio in donning the unsettling rubber masks and the effect ranges between eerily realistic to distractingly absurd. You get used to watching these plastic people after a while in their company, yet this isn't a process aided by Dustin Lance Black's time-hopping screenplay. Yet it still doesn't quite bury the performances, which are on the whole decent.

DiCaprio is blatantly Oscar-fishing at this point, moving between eye-catching portrayals of big historical figures (perfecting accents, mannerisms and peculiar ticks) and heroic leads in thinking man's genre movies, all under the direction of prestigious filmmakers. And whether he's cultivating dodgy facial hair - as in every film between 2006 and 2010 (such as 'The Departed', 'Shutter Island' and 'Inception') - or piling on the old man make-up (also see 'The Aviator'), there is no doubt he's obsessed with destroying memories of him as that baby-faced, pretty boy of 'Romeo + Juliet' and 'Titanic', or the child star of ''What's Eating Gilbert Grape'. Yet he is always convincing and creates fully-formed characters, with his Hoover no exception.

On the first point however, I would have to take issue. With little prior interest in the history of American federal law enforcement, I only know about Hoover what the film has told me. And though it uses the writing of a biography as a framing device to air Hoover's view on some of his more controversial actions (for instance his use of wire-tapping or mass deportation of suspected political radicals), giving an overall sympathetic depiction of his character, the film leaves little doubt that he was, at best, excessive and at, at worst, criminal: driven by dangerous obsessions and a hunger for personal fame. I also think much of the film's apparently skewed take on history (such as its demonising of the American left in the 1920s) can be seen as coming from Hoover's subjective viewpoint (a point ably made by Tolson near the film's climax, as he challenges Hoover's account of events).

As far as the cross-dressing goes there is only one brief visual reference to it, with no shots of DiCaprio in a dress, but there is nothing so ambiguous or cautious about the film's account of Hoover's relationship with Tolson, which is tender and, in its own way, tragic. True, we aren't shown them in the throes of passion, with Hoover played as a deeply repressed and almost A-sexual being - in thrall to his judgemental mother (Judi Dench) and unwavering commitment to "the bureau" - but there is great warmth between them that goes far beyond mere drinking companions.

It is implied strongly that Hoover employs Tolson because he fancies him. The two men are shown to go on holiday together and promise never to spend a lunch or dinner apart. We see them holding hands as Tolson tells Hoover that he loves him - and Hoover is shown to respond in kind (albeit in a whisper). In the same scene, Tolson gets incredibly upset upon learning of Hoover's consideration of a beard marriage - and, crucially, his sorrow is enough for the otherwise unshakable Hoover to abandon his plan. There is no way you could come away from this account of J. Edgar Hoover and not think that Eastwood and Black (who won an Academy Award for writing 'Milk') were of the firm opinion that he was homosexual.

'J. Edgar' is out now in the UK, rated '15' by the BBFC.

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