Academic Writing

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

J. Edgar

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I had high expectations going in to see Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar.  Firstly because in my eyes Leo DiCaprio can do no wrong.  Sorry, I just have to admit to that bias up front.  And while Leo did come through, as this is probably one of his best performances to date, the rest of the film didn’t quite hold up to the expectations I’d set forth for it.  Secondly, given that it's an Eastwood vehicle and has gotten all the awards buzz that accompany movies, especially biopics with big names attached to them, I assumed it would be a masterpiece.

Told as a back and forth between flashbacks as an aging J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) dictates his life story to a revolving door of clerks and agents who have been charged with the task of typing up his tale.  We learn about his early life as a new agent to the department of justice and how he rose in the ranks of the department from young paranoid, arrogant clerk to old, paranoid, arrogant bureau chief.  The audience is supposed to be able to keep track of different timelines, mostly, by relying on the makeup used to age the characters.  This is pretty unfortunate because the makeup was horrific, resulting in most of the characters looking like burn victims rather than old people.  The story ends up being rather convoluted and the narrative structure is more complex that it really needs to be, which is unfortunate because had it been a little more delicately handled it probably could have worked.

The movie goes on a little longer than it probably needed to, but does tell the story of a man central to shaping the America we know today, so it is an important tale to tell.  What was troubling, as is often the case with biopics, is that the lines are blurred between fact and speculation.  It has been largely assumed that Hoover was a homosexual and was in a relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his right hand man and close confident for decades.  I found it somewhat troubling that for something that's speculative at best, the film does its best to make you believe it was fact. While I recognize that this is commonplace with films that take on historical figures, it seemed overdone in this one.

One overarching theme that struck me as the most significant in this film is the focus it puts on Hoover’s insistence on keeping information.  To him, as he says outright, information is power.  Hoover was famous for his information collection and he would, as the movie makes clear, threaten anyone who he considered to not to be loyal or anti-American with the dissemination of the information.  In this film, and maybe he was, he comes across rather paranoid and over the top.  He even threatens Tolson, the man who has stayed by his side for years, when he accuses him of being less than honest.  Hoover's insistence on both national and personal loyalty was paramount and would not tolerate anything less.

This control of information, and the constant references to it in the film, seem to be a direct commentary on the state of our relationship with personal information in 2011.  Take the subject of another recent biopic, Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg in the movie The Social Network.  He too is depicted as a paranoid and arrogant guy who prides himself on the control of information and will take anyone down should they prove to be anything less than up to his standards of loyalty.  However, the main difference with this character is that his goal is to share information.  Speaking on behalf of Facebook recently, his sister announced that anonymity on the internet is no longer available.  Your information and anything you post will be subject to public viewing. They positioned it not as something which should make you upset, but just the next phase in our social evolution; it's our new reality.  Initially people might have been shocked or horrified at this notion, but it hasn't kept people from posting minute detail of their lives online.  Oversharing and publicly putting any thought, picture, or comment on display for anyone with an internet connection.  So then, is Zuckerberg the anti-Hoover as he disseminates information to the masses?  Or is the next generation of Hoover as he too controls information but is simply moderating the sharing of information in this different world?

Additionally, another relationship with modern society seems to have been made clear through the Hoover’s commentary on those who are considered to be anti-American.  In those days the threat was communism, from both abroad and domestic.  From the film, it seems as though Hoover spent his entire career keeping the communist forces at bay to keep America safe.  The idea of protecting America is once again an important social issue nearly a century after Hoover began his work.  These days we have a different enemy, but similarly the threat comes from both from outside our borders and within as well.  Now, however, those doing the accusing seems to be any news outlet who wants to boost its ratings, not a genuine interest in protecting the country.  The important lesson we must learn from this historical repetition is to not be like an opportunist as was Senator Joseph McCarthy (so stated Hoover), but to protect the country in a meaningful way.  What is not helpful is the fever pitch that has become Fox News accusing anyone who doesn’t think like them of being anti-American.

Ultimately this film set out to tell an in depth story of a man who kept secrets.  Not only the secrets of countless Americans, but secrets of his own, and secrets he never wanted coming out.  Even some of the people closest to him, and there were not that many, didn't know the true J. Edgar Hoover.  It seems as though, despite Eastwood's best intentions, while we might get a glimpse into some of his dealings, neither will we.

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