J. EDGAR (2011, directed by Clint Eastwood, 137 minutes, minutes, U.S.)
MELANCHOLIA (2010, directed by Lars Von Trier, 134 minutes, Denmark)
BY DAN BUSKIRK FILM CRITIC “Clint Eastwood directs Leonardo as Hoover”so perfectly fits the bill of holiday season prestige film, I was worried I would be able to predict, with frame by frame accuracy, the contents of the film before it unspooled. J. Edgar does have many of the expected contrivances of the historical biopic: stately direction in dark oaken rooms; sexy gossip about public figures; and the singular thrill of seeing attractive young stars covered in liver spots. Perhaps the title should clue us in, Eastwood’s film J. Edgar gives us an intimate view of the man who founded the F.B.I., focusing on fantasies of the man’s sexual style, yet it misses the “Hoover,” the man whose name has been synonymous with illegal surveillance, executive branch blackmail and privacy-stomping, power-driven over-reach for nearly a century. Staying true to his long-standing conservative roots, Eastwood has made a very forgiving portrait of the man, making a film whose scope stretches across decades, yet its perspective seems not much wider than Hoover’s narrow shoulders.
Using the hoariest of narrative tropes, wherein the aged Hoover dictating his life story to a biographer, J. Edgar swings us back and forth through the tough little bastard’s life. We see the young stuttering man, earnestly inventing crime scene protocol, the rising political figure fighting gangster in the Depression-era and the aging monument, powerful enough to blackmail the Commander-In-Chief during the Kennedy years. Even Richard Nixon gets time on screen, presented as a bungler when compared to Hoover’s superior political gamesmanship. It’s a film that packs in the historic incident and basically honors Hoover for making the F.B.I. the institution it is today.
Eastwood brings the gloss and gravitas but it is the script from Dustin Lance Black that gives us an oddly stunted perspective on Hoover. Somehow squaring the cross-purposed politics of J. Edgar‘s screenplay and his moving script for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, Black is crafting a filmography seemingly tailor-made for Log Cabin Republican. Eastwood ideological leanings present themselves early on, as the 1919 anarchist bombing of Attorney General Attorney Mitchell Palmer’s home is presented in frightening, child-screaming detail, but the reaction, the infamous Palmer Raids in which Hoover first made his reputation, are presented as good old fashioned homeland security. In actuality, they were the beginning of the oppressive Red Scare era, where the abusive, illegal actions of law enforcement were so extreme they led to the founding of American Civil Liberties Union. The film continues in this manner, admitting that Hoover was capable of pettiness and self-promotion yet never showing the pain and sorrow caused by his actions, whether waging war on progressive figures like Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy, stirring the pot on the hysteria of the Hollywood Blacklist or spying on student activists protesting the Vietnam War. It is as if screenwriter Black, in his mid-thirties, is too unsure to deal with the enormity of history and instead deals with the aspect of Hoover to which he can most relate: his sexuality.
But Hoover was a incredibly discreet, and suggestions that his right hand man Clyde Tolson was his lover, while convincing, are without a single shred of evidence. Black has given himself license to fill in the details of Hoover’s sex life and he makes the dullest, most conservative of choices. Black shows Hoover as a devoted, hand-squeezing, constant companion with Tolson, yet Hoover punches him in the mouth when Tolson dares to kiss him. Meanwhile, Hoover’s homosexuality and guilt is blamed on the oldest cliché of all: the domineering mother (powerfully played Judith Dench). The script even honors the far-fetched urban legend of Hoover’s cross-dressing, explaining it away as the intense mourning of a devoted son. Perhaps Hoover lived in a state of sexual chastity, but that is the least challenging and least cinematic of biographical assumptions. J. Edgar’s old-fashioned demeanor could have used the jolt of some spirited man-on-man action, instead Eastwood and Black choose to imagine away Hoover’s sexuality.
Hoover’s inability to face his sexuality and the film’s unwillingness to show the people he terrorized cuts the heart out of its character and leaves the hard-working Leonardo DiCaprio playing a cranky bureaucrat rather than a corrupt cop kingpin. His age make-up is the most believable I’ve ever seen (the digital touch-up lessens that latex look), all the better to make Hoover resemble the kind of irascible Ed Asner-esque senior citizen you’d find in a TV sitcom, complete with his gay sidekick and his long-suffering loyal secretary (a throw-away role for Naomi Watts). The final effect is that J. Edgar renders Hoover as a flawed, but great man, even if Eastwood’s account is tellingly vague on just what about this man is so heroic.
– – – – – – – – – – –
The end of the world arrives in cinemas this week, and not just any old end of the world, but the apocalypse as imagined by Lars Von Trier, whose work consistently out-shines his skills as a provocateur (an opinion, I’ll admit, not universally shared). The arrival of the Cannes award-winner Melancholia should be an event for lovers of modern cinema but the film’s impact does seem deadened by its early arrival through On-Demand services and a couple of high-profile screenings in last month’s Philly Film Fest. Melancholia is not a film best viewed on your dinky TV set; its stellar moments are the spectacle of worlds colliding as Wagner blares. You can watch 2001: A Space Odyssey on your I-Phone but I would hesitate to say that you’ve really “seen” it. My advice is to jump at the chance to see this film with an audience and on the big screen. See it for its heady spectacle and despite its undeniable failings.
The film’s brief opening, which features odd, hyper-slow images of our characters clamoring for a safety they’ll never reach, is a grand cinematic moment, equal in impact to those in the year’s much-acclaimed Tree of Life. The intro is so effective that Von Trier never quite gets the domestic drama of the bride-to-be played by Kirsten Dunst to jibe with concept of the impending stellar catastrophe. The film’s first section is focused on the mounting dread that builds during Justine’s (Dunst’s) wedding reception, a tension that only Justine seems to feel. The cast of family and guests tosses together such watchable actors as Charlotte Rampling, John Hurt, Keifer Sutherland and Alexander & Stellan Skarsgard as the groom and his powerful father. They bicker and taunt and fight and storm off, all very enjoyable but all seeming trivial in comparison to the apocalyptic planetary collision we’ve already witnessed in the opening. It’s Justine’s distracted disconnect, going so far as to hump a stray guest out on the golf course green while in her wedding dress, that is most compelling. We’re drawn to her because she’s psychically feeling the impact of the disaster we’ve seen looming.
The second half is weeks after the wedding’s collapse, as the depressed Justine and her fussy older sister Claire (Charlotte Gainsbourg) fret about the best way to meet oblivion. Von Trier’s film bogs down in this closing half, the series of sisterly tussles are repetitive and detached from the tragedy looming ever closer. Of course Melancholia is not just a heavenly body but a dark, depressive cloud, slowly consuming all of us in the face of our uncertain future. Von Trier’s world blows up real good, and those images and emotions evoked by its loss will linger amongst our worries longer than the petty arguments between two glum sisters.