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J.Edgar – Clint Eastwood: the ends justify the means




J.Edgar – Clint Eastwood

Little Boy, Fat Man, Operation Ranch Hand, CREEP, Operation Geronimo: respectively – Hiroshima, Nagasaki, Agent Orange in Vietnam, Watergate and the killing of Osama Bin Laden.

We are all, as people, organisations or nations, tempted by the subversive moral argument that ends can sometimes justify means: but perhaps none more so than the United States, where an almost mystical reliance is placed upon the individual, President, General or city cop, to save or protect the citizens and the country at home or abroad.

Clint Eastwood has virtually made a whole career out of characters representing this principle – if principle it be – from the iconic Harry Callaghan through endless Westerns, frontier or city; as the cop/cowboy-who-saves-the-day. It represents the belief, running deep within the American psyche and constantly reflected by Hollywood, that the last resort of Justice and Security is not the Law and Due Process; but the exercise of extra-judicial power by a single individual. This is perhaps part of the underlying rationale for the mystique of the gun so prevalent in American culture and perplexing to the rest of the democratic world. The gun is the great leveller: everyone can be a warrior; everyone can save the day; everyone can kill, and get killed.

Many of Eastwood’s films to me are either morally muddled, muddling, or both: none more so than this deeply American take on an iconic American figure; creator of the FBI, myth and legend – John Edgar Hoover. There are a surprising number of parallels with The Iron Lady: an impersonational central performance and a directorial focus on the emotional life of a profoundly political historic figure. A mistake, in my view in both cases: but for very different reasons.

Hoover made so many powerful enemies in office it is not surprising that his death set off an avalanche of revelations about a life the reality of which was so outrageously at odds with the myth to which he so assiduously contributed.

On Eastwood’s own account Hoover was a ruthless, tight-assed, prurient, mother-dominated hypocrite; a deeply repressed homosexual and an un-giving, unforgiving friend who conflated his own ambitions, blatant prejudice and political paranoia with what was best for the moral and political health of the American people. Believe me, Eastwood’s Hoover ain’t much fun.

This was a man who served under 8 Presidents and blackmailed at least half of them; set up and ran for almost 40 years the most famous law enforcement agency in the world; later claimed there was no such thing as the Mafia or organised crime; helped to stoke up national paranoia against Communism and was directly instrumental in the formation of the McCarthy HUAC (House of Un-American Activities) witch-hunt against among others, many of the most talented artists, writers and directors in Hollywood.

So tell me: what would you say might be the most interesting thing about such a malodorous guy? Eastwood’s answer is largely – that Hoover was gay. Amongst so many critical moral, social and political questions it just seems downright perverse to concentrate on the most irrelevant – to today’s sensibilities and priorities. A clue here may be Eastwood’s screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who is on the board of one of the major US gay organisations and also wrote Milk. Don’t get me wrong: Milk was rightly, entirely about the relationship between Harvey Milk’s battle to achieve political parity of esteem and his gayness. But, however salaciously, secretively sensational Hoover’s sexual orientation was, the odd way they are linked in J.Edgar is dangerous for two reasons: either it invites anti-gay prejudice only too willing to attribute Hoover’s crimes and misdemeanours to his homosexuality; or in a subversive kind of way, it builds an odd kind of sympathy or indulgence towards his worst actions because of the real stresses and risks of having to hide his sexuality.

Eastwood it seems to me falls in to the second of these traps – the same mistake, though for very different reasons, Phyllida Lloyd made in The Iron Lady. Both subjects get away far too lightly: Mrs Thatcher from her political actions; and Hoover from an endless list of nefarious acts.

Time-shifting, sometimes confusingly, between Hoover’s early days as a mother’s boy with an obsessive approach to work; and some of the key events in his later life you have to keep a close eye on haircuts and waistlines to know which period you’re in.

From creepy agent of the Bureau of Investigation, no-life Edgar, egged on by his doting widowed mother (Judi Dench) is appointed its head. Determinedly ambitious, Edgar tries unsuccessfully, to muscle in on the State police’s investigation of the nationally sensational kidnapping of the Lindberg baby. Concentrating on a forensic science approach to crime investigation and compiling the largest collection of fingerprints in the world, Hoover eventually persuades President Roosevelt of the need for a Federal body to apprehend cross-border crime, especially from famous gangsters like Capone, Dillinger et al. Hoover grabs headlines and credit wherever possible and in the volatile pre-war period persuades Roosevelt to increase his brief to include political surveillance of potential threats.

With only his devoted Secretary (Kelly Lester) to rely on, Hoover is drawn to the Harvard style and good looks of Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) eventually to become Hoover’s life-long ‘companion’ and deputy Director of the FBI. With the unquestioning support of these two devoted acolytes Hoover builds up private, unofficial files, including wire-taps and tapes on among others: Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, Jack and Bobby Kennedy, and Richard Nixon. He becomes an arch-proponent of the ends/means argument and perhaps the first political figure to fully exploit the immense de facto power of holding ‘dirt’ on key figures.

Given that the relationship between Tolson and Hoover, known in the real life FBI as ‘J. Edna and Mrs Tolson’ is the chosen focus for his film Eastwood is uneasily both clear and coy about their behaviour to one another. Edgar’s homophobic mother and PR-based efforts at entertaining women are shown but De Caprio’s Hoover seems more a-sexual than anything; which stories of all-male sex parties in real life tends to belie. The central relationship in Eastwood’s film just never works. True this is not helped by Di Caprio being lumbered with an accent so deliberate and clearly assumed (accurate or not) it slows down the whole pace of the film. Di Caprio’s make-up is obvious and therefore distracting and Hammer’s elderly Tolson would look over-done at a Halloween party – with acting to match.

Eastwood gives us the worst of both worlds: first, merely anecdotal events and politics with no clarity or incisiveness that prevents us making a serious judgement about this politically potent, much feared figure who abused his position and the very principles he claimed to stand for. Second a coyly uneasy view of a personal life so denuded of emotion, or passion that the disreputable empathy Black’s script invites us to feel doesn’t work either: true pathos isn’t this pathetic.

We never get any sense of how Eastwood feels about his own subject: and his own ambivalence and uncertainly transfers to us. It can be a powerful Directorial method to take a non-judgemental, objective perspective on a subject but Eastwood’s treatment of nearly everything in Hoover’s life is so unequivocal as to seem like a hatchet job at times – yet totally belied in tone by the treatment of other elements in his film.

Ethically, morally and politically J.Edgar is totally uneven. As a film the central performances are so laboured they constantly distract rather than engage us with the characters. It seems to me to be a muddled movie born of a muddled, unresolved approach to its central character.

Just as with Mrs Thatcher, I am sure there is a great film to be made about Hoover and the historic events in which he was such an influential figure: but this isn’t it. That said this was a fascinating, complex period of the last century and the backdrop of many of the most dramatic political events on the world stage. With his usual meticulous care for detail, Eastwood powerfully recreates the atmosphere of the times.

There are other good things in J.Edgar that make it worth a look and perhaps its moral ambivalence simply reflects that of its director. The ends/means justification is by definition an exception: once it becomes an accepted general principle as it did with Hoover it corrupts; not just the person but the organisation that sustains him. The person closest to Hoover’s self-serving hypocrisy was I think Richard Nixon. Now that was a relationship that would have been worth exploring.

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