22 January 2012

Why J Edgar is a must-watch this weekend

Clint Eastwood’s biopic of J Edgar Hoover is a remarkably ambitious film. It is ambitious not just because of the long time period it spans — from 1919, when a 24-year-old Hoover was put in charge of a new division under the Department of Justice to investigate the programmes of radical groups, until 1972, when his death ended a controversial 37-year-long career as the director of the FBI — but because it seeks to lay bare a life that was all about secrets.

On the one hand there are the secrets of other people’s lives: dirty linen that Hoover dug out on everyone he considered a possible ‘public enemy’, creating a growing stash of files that became the unspoken basis of his tenacious hold on power. On the other is Hoover’s own closely-guarded private life, especially the nature of his close relationship with long-time colleague, FBI Associate Director Clyde Tolson, the subject of much speculation during Hoover’s life.

Oddly, Eastwood’s film seems more at ease when dealing with Hoover’s largely undocumented home life than when mapping the more public highs (or lows) of his long career. It provides a coolly efficient precis of Hoover’s professional life, tracking both his investigative triumphs (like the dogged pursuit of the kidnapper of Charles Lindbergh’s infant son, after which kidnapping became a Federal offence) and his most egregious moments: gloating over Robert Kennedy because he had acquired a recording of his brother (JFK) having sex with a woman described as “an East German Communist”; or dictating a bizarre anonymous letter to Martin Luther King, the discovery of whose sexual indiscretions he believes will prevent King from accepting the Nobel Prize. But it does not ever tell us what to think of him.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, best known for another biopic, Milk, seems much more confident when illuminating, with a series of suggestive, finely etched scenes, the personal life of a man who lived with his mother till his 40s, never married and publicly scorned homosexuality, while sustaining a lifelong relationship with another man.

Black’s screenplay introduces the 24-year-old J Edgar as a rather unfortunate young man, his yearning to be taken seriously making him an object of mockery for the older secretaries at the Department of Justice where he works. Leonardo di Caprio shows us just how far he’s come from the golden boy of Titanic, brilliantly embodying not just the socially awkward bluster of the young upstart but the pomposity and smarminess of the older man.

As Hoover rises to the position of power he craved, he dismisses everyone who doesn’t fit his standards of “education, physical fitness and above all, loyalty”, while surrounding himself with those he can completely trust. The young secretary he picks for a proposal of marriage, Helen Gandy (superbly underplayed by Naomi Watts), refuses the romance but agrees to be his personal secretary, and remains by his side all his life. Then there’s the tall, dashing Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), with whom Hoover is clearly taken, right from the first meeting where he congratulates him on his suit (“a custom cut from Garfinkle’s department store,” says Tolson, calmly accepting the compliment as his due). Some of the film’s best scenes are the ones where the emotional heft of their relationship is suddenly revealed, almost surprising Hoover himself: like the moment when Tolson, asked to be his Number Two man, accepts only on the condition that “we never miss a lunch or a dinner together”. “I would have it no other way,” responds Edgar, and suddenly it’s a solemn moment, as close to a romantic confession as the two can get.

On the whole, Eastwood and Black imagine the Hoover-Tolson relationship as one whose deep-down intensity is never allowed to bubble up to the surface, and certainly not permitted physical expression. In all the years of companionable lunching and vacationing together, there is but a single tortured kiss – and it gets Tolson a sock in the jaw from the outraged Hoover, a man brought up by a rather terrifying mother (the marvellous Judi Dench), who “would rather have a dead son than a daffodil”. The other moment when homosexuality is actually discussed in the film is much less dramatic, but perhaps more revealing of the disjuncture between Hoover and Tolson’s approach to their sexuality. An incredulous Hoover, having got the information that First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt may be having an affair with a woman, tells Tolson the news. He is still laughing raucously at the thought when Tolson silences him with a cocked eyebrow.

Several liberal reviewers in the US have been disturbed by the film’s non-judgmental approach to Hoover’s career, coupled with the humanising of the man that lies at the core of Black’s screenplay. With a subject as divisive as J Edgar Hoover, it isn’t surprising that many have seen Eastwood’s non-invasive laying out of the facts as a political cop-out. I wouldn’t go quite as far. One does not need to editorialise in order to see the stifling world of J Edgar as a prequel to the world in which many people in the US (and thus to an unfortunate extent, all of us) now live: a world obsessed with security, paranoid about unseen threats from within and without, and where we are willing to sacrifice personal liberty for a perceived sense of safety.

(Published in Firstpost)

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