Sara Anson Vaux is director of the Office of Fellowships at Northwestern University, where she also teaches film in the religious studies department, and author of the new book The Ethical Vision of Clint Eastwood. In this post, she offers her expert analysis of Eastwood’s latest film, J. Edgar, now in theaters.
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Yesterday I went back to the local theater to see J. Edgar again. Initially, I found Clint Eastwood’s newest movie a masterpiece of period, mood, and understatement, with brilliant performances by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, his life partner.
The distaste of the critics did not surprise me, for with Changeling and Hereafter and even Gran Torino and Invictus brilliant explorations of the tragedies of life were sadly overlooked. How dare Eastwood (“Dirty Harry”) abandon the tough American hero template to focus on a woman, three damaged fools, a crazy old kook, and a mythologized political figure in a far distant land! And now: how dare he do a biopic on a reviled and shadowy “G-man” — who ruined our country — without painting him in the colors of pure evil!
At my second viewing, I was even more impressed with Eastwood’s storytelling. As my neighbor said recently, “I was drawn into the story from the very first moment and want to go back to see it.” Rather than starting with J. Edgar’s early life and marching straight toward his death at age 77, Eastwood begins as the powerful director of the untouchable FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) dictates his life story to a young FBI agent, who busily types away without comment. The spoken words quickly fade into images of a young, ambitious man determined to protect his country from anarchists like the ones who overthrew the Russian Czar and his government — or so the young man tells everyone. The rest of the movie follows the same pattern: the older Hoover dictates his memoirs to a series of young agents, and we see almost cartoon-like illustrations of the “facts” he has given to his transcriber.
As the movie progresses, though, every time the older Hoover appears in the present day, the cartoons begin to show not a great American hero (the dramatic G-man Hoover presented to the outside world) but, rather, a paranoid, power-hungry figure who terrifies presidents and attorneys general, disregards the Constitution, and spies on hundreds of thousands of American citizens.
Instead of increasing the glamour of the portrait, Eastwood lets the story begin to fall apart. Hoover’s own colleagues and confidents criticize him quietly through glances and body language or toward the end of the movie, quite openly. Hoover himself goes on an insane rampage with his campaigns against Martin Luther King Jr. and President Kennedy. Most tellingly, even his devoted secretary Helen, to whom he once proposed, and his inseparable friend Clyde, #2 at the Bureau and #1 in Hoover’s life, become horrified and disgusted at his lies and speak out.
Since he first began to make movies, Eastwood has repeatedly examined American political life with intelligence and understanding. J. Edgar is one of his most powerful explorations of justice and its conflicted, complex nature to date.
The real-life J. Edgar Hoover did irreparable damage to freedom of speech and assembly during his years as head of the FBI. My husband and I were among his many targets. As the historical record shows — and as Eastwood shows with clarity in this film — he justified any means (perjury; torture; spying; violence) to “protect our country,” even if he trampled over democracy itself in the process.
What’s more, after two viewings, I have concluded that this movie is much more than a simple biopic. It comments upon current events — the illegal war in Iraq with thousands of our own soldiers and Iraqi civilians dead; prejudice and even violence toward immigrants and anyone else whose religion and skin color are different from our own; and assaults upon freedom of assembly. The search to define and deliver justice in our democracy continues, and Clint Eastwood is still on the case.