Saturday, November 12, 2011

All Work and No Play Makes "J. Edgar" Boring!

Fall movies mean one thing, usually. Oscar showcases! Film studios hoping to impress the voters of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts and Sciences release the most serious films in the fall. This includes biopics, movies adapted from best selling literary novels, period pieces, and some of the best acting performances. Since I'm a big biopic fan, I will go see any major one that gets released. This year's Clint Eastwood film is a biopic on the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, J. Edgar Hoover. He was a legendary figure who was instrumental in nationalizing the crime data (through the use of fingerprints and a centralized database) and ran the Bureau from the early 1920s until his death in 1972. He served under eight presidents and probably most humiliating for him was having Robert F. Kennedy as his boss from 1961 to 1964 (Kennedy was born in 1925, one year after Hoover was promoted to head the Bureau).

I've never liked J. Edgar Hoover since I learned about him. My opinion is based on his testy relations with the Kennedy brothers and his view that Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. was a communist. Hoover had too much power and kept secret files featuring the private peccadillos of various politicians and notable public figures, which he used to leverage power. Since his death, the FBI Director now serves for a period of ten years and the headquarters in Washington, D.C. bears his name. I toured the building in 2000 during my internship program. Not nearly as cool as the CIA headquarters, but it was still an impressive old-style government building with a nice museum inside.

When I was in college, a fellow political science student I knew (he was from British Columbia, Canada and seemed more interested in America than Canada) was a fan of J. Edgar Hoover. He lost credibility with me when he did not even know that J. Edgar Hoover was known to cross-dress and was likely a closeted homosexual. I knew those details back in high school. It was just more reasons to not like Hoover very much. He bended the rules to suit his purposes and he was on the wrong side of history in regards to his surveillance and harassment of the Civil Rights leaders.

As for the film, J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job in the role. He actually does lose himself in the role and you really believe that you are watching J. Edgar Hoover rather than Leonardo DiCaprio. Best Actor nomination worthy for sure. The film, though, jumps around too much. While a straight linear film can be kind of boring, the constant jumping around in time (at least three different timelines seemed to be running) made it difficult to follow. The screenplay was written by the same guy who wrote another biopic, Milk. In one storyline, an older Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a writer, which takes the audience back to 1919 (the year my grandfather was born!) when Hoover as a 24 year old saw the sloppy investigation of a bombing. He was the right man to push for changes in investigation procedures and he was singularly anti-communist and anti-anarchist (if I'm not mistaken, two presidents were assassinated by anarchists: Grover Cleveland and William McKinley).

From the Palmer Raids to busting the mob to investigating the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby to wiretapping Dr. King's hotel room, this film covers the wide expanse of Hoover's working life. The presentation, however, is rather dull. Hoover doesn't appear to have much of a life outside of work. And when he does get away, he gets away with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. They eat lunch and dinner together, vacation away together, and work together. There is debate on whether the two had a romantic or sexual relationship, or were they more like brothers who spent a lot of time together? What makes things even more compelling is that Tolson inherited Hoover's house, received the flag that was on Hoover's coffin, and eventually was buried near Hoover's grave. The movie implies that the two had a homosexual relationship, though it appears that it may not have involved actual sex. Perhaps they were just two men who enjoyed each other's company?

The actor who played Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) did a great job. He actually kind of resembles RFK, at least moreso than the actor who played Robert F. Kennedy in the recent miniseries The Kennedys. Too bad that he didn't play RFK in the miniseries as well. His role in J. Edgar was rather small. Dame Judi Dench plays J. Edgar's mother and she has a great line that she tells her son when he admits to her that he doesn't like dancing with women: "I'd rather have a dead son than one who is a daffodil." Day-um! That's quite the euphemism! Naomi Watts plays Edgar's secretary, Helen Gandy. At first, Edgar shows romantic interest in her and takes her on a date to the Library of Congress to show her the card catalog system that he supposedly created to make it easier to locate books (I had never heard that attributed to him). He proposes marriage without so much as a romantic spark. Its all based on his cold reading of her being intelligent and virtuous, and thus a good match for him. She declines and becomes his long-serving secretary.

While the film has plenty of interesting moments, overall, the tone is rather dull. This could be the subject matter, though. Hoover may have accomplished a lot and helped make the Federal Bureau of Investigations what it is today, but he appears to be a boring person. Sure, there's the salacious hypocrisy that he's interesting in knowing the details of other people's private, sexual lives while he hides his own homosexuality and cross-dressing tendencies, but ultimately, the movie is boring because J. Edgar Hoover is boring.

When I left the theater, I overheard some other people who saw the movie mention that during the movie, they took a quick nap, they made a mental list of things they needed to do, they counted sheep, etc. So, I'm not the only one who found the movie boring. Let's hope that The Iron Lady (about Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher) is not boring. I don't expect it to be, because I find her to be a fascinating icon. My generation grew up in the Reagan-Thatcher-Pope John Paul II era. One can't separate any of those three individuals from the era in which they shared the world stage.

Below is a picture of the real J. Edgar Hoover. He has a face that only his mother could love! He looks like a human bulldog. I bet he makes a really ugly woman. I wonder what it is about some men that makes them interested in dressing as women. He didn't seem like the type. The movie doesn't really get into that (there is only one brief scene, but in the context of what happened right before, his reasons did not appear perverted). If there is a lesson to learn from Hoover's life, I'd say that its probably a good idea to not work all the time. Its okay to relax and enjoy life outside of work. After all, as you've probably heard: "no one on their deathbed wishes that they had spent more time at the office."


T said...

I was going to suggest to Rob that we see this movie this weekend. Now I'm going to pass.

Though I think DiCaprio is brilliant in everything he does,Hoover was definitely gay (IMHO) and probably nuts in the same way that Joe McCarthy was nuts. If the film doesn't capture that, it misses the larger picture, so what's the point?

I'll wait for the DVD.

Sansego said...

You can definitely wait until its on DVD. There are other movies worth seeing at the theater.

The movie definitely leaves the viewer no doubt that Hoover was gay, but the director spares us the details. I think its fitting that the movie is boring, but Hoover does seem like a boring person. All work and a repressed personal life.