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Culture Warrior: ‘J. Edgar,’ the Limitations of Biopics, and Eastwood’s Politics

By  · Published on November 15th, 2011

Warning: This post contains spoilers about J. Edgar.

For the past few years, I haven’t been much of a fan of Clint Eastwood’s work. While he no doubt possesses storytelling skills as a director and certainly maintains an incredible presence as a movie star, I’ve found that critics who constantly praise his work often overlook its general lack of finesse, tired and sometimes visionless formal approach, and habitual ham-fistedness. When watching Eastwood’s work, I get the impression, supported by stories of his uniquely economic method of filmmaking, that he thinks of himself as something of a Woody Allen for the prestige studio drama, able to get difficult stories right in one take. The end product, for me, says otherwise. While I was a fan of the strong but still imperfect Mystic River (2003) and Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), the moment that I stopped trusting Eastwood came around the time the song “Colorblind” appeared in Invictus two years ago, throwing any prospect of nuance and panache out the window.

Eastwood, despite having helmed several notable cinematic successes, has recently been coasting on a reputation that doesn’t match the work. He is, in short, proof of the auteur problem: that we as critics forgive from him transgressions that would never be deemed acceptable with a “lesser” director.

As you can likely tell, my expectations were to the ground in seeking out the critically-divided J. Edgar. I was prepared, in entering the theater to watch Eastwood’s newest, to write an article about what the admittedly talented Eastwood needs to do to prevent his flaws from overshadowing the depth which is otherwise tangible, if underexplored, in his work. Perhaps my surprise was a result of my low expectations or, more likely, that Eastwood worked here for the first time with Milk’s Dustin Lance Black, a far better screenwriter than past Eastwood collaborators like J. Michael Straczynski and Paul Haggis. But J. Edgar, while far from a great movie, surprised me not only by being a pretty good one, but by actually doing something new, interesting, and critical with the otherwise tired genre that is the biopic.

Criticism and the Auteur

In a recent post on the New Yorker blog, Richard Brody takes umbrage with critics who he feels are making a disproportionate or inappropriate attack on what they see as lacking in Eastwood’s work:

“These writers’ presumption to expertise in matters of technique and form actually reveals the opposite of the magisterial objectivity to which they lay claim: they’re thinking about their reactions to a movie rather than thinking about the movie. There’s no such thing as “bad acting” or “sloppy blocking” or “bad lines”; none of these aspects of a film exist apart from the ideas and emotions, the world view, of the filmmaker.”

I respectfully disagree with this component of Brody’s auteurist critique-of-critique. While it’s true that there are no essential standards of quality in film – such things are always historically, socio-culturally, contextually, and industrially constructed – this doesn’t mean Eastwood himself should be engaged with as separate from that context. While only a few of Eastwood’s 21st century films (and this is, with certainty, the era in which his reputation as a director has skyrocketed) can only occasionally be considered box-office draws, his work is within a distinct, prestige mode of Hollywood filmmaking, which engenders specific expectations based not only on this frame of viewing, but because of previous entries within Eastwood’s career.

Brody’s mistaken assumption here lies in thinking such criticisms are directed at an Eastwood whose entire career behind the camera is criticized as overrated or flawed, when instead the more common case is the lingering sense of value unrealized by sloppy technique (in other words, the Eastwood of Invictus makes us long for the Eastwood of Unforgiven). It’s impossible then, to think “about the movie” instead of focusing on one’s “reactions to a movie” when a director’s technique prevents us from getting lost in that movie in the first place.

However, I do agree with a point Brody makes in another post about J. Edgar: that Eastwood is a uniquely political filmmaker. Brody compellingly traverses Eastwood’s career, focusing on the ways in which each entry in the filmmaker’s recent and prolific work explores varying relationships between the democracy and the individual.

Thematics and technique are separate issues when critiquing films, and I don’t think Brody would argue otherwise. Where I see Eastwood’s technique as lacking, the ideas that he presents are admittedly interesting, whether in demystifying a historic icon in Flags of Our Fathers (2006), depicting relentless cycles of violence and blurring the lines of justice in Mystic River, or exploring sport as both a symbol for social change and embodying social change itself in Invictus. Eastwood’s films are not political in the sense of being easily delineated as liberal or conservative, or shilling for one side of an oversimplified and falsely framed ideological perspective. Where Eastwood’s presentation is often blunt to a fault, his themes are nuanced. And when examining his work as a whole, it’s fascinating that a Hollywood director associated (mistakenly) with a patently conservative image has been able to deliver narratives which, time and again, explore profound questions of American political reality with a significant lack of closure.

J. Edgar and the Biopic

Through his creation and commandeering of public records and his contributions to forensic science, J. Edgar Hoover blurred distinctions between public and private lives, between the persona and the person (i.e., he can be largely credited for public persona of JFK the President and the private persona of JFK the Mafia-affiliated playboy). His life, strangely enough, is more important than ever in an information era where are our private identities and activities are for sale to the new corporations of Web 2.0.

The traditional Hollywood biopic has had a history of difficulty in separating these two aspects of their subjects’ lives, oscillating between the accepted better-known record of the famous subjects’ public persona and the disputable myth of their private persona. The fatal flaw to Hoover’s own reputation, of course, was in never quite realizing that every public face has a private life and, depending on the politics of a given time, everyone has “skeletons in their closet.”

In maintaining his control over the FBI by hovering the threat of “the file” over each successive mid-century President, Hoover failed to realize his own complicity in the complex and fragile processes of reputation-forming that he wielded over his superiors. Hoover’s repressed homosexuality, more than making him realize that he is as vulnerable as the powerful men he dealt with, should have signaled for him the fact that privacy is a valued commodity for all, and its revelations can be a weapon used against anybody more often because of social mores than actual criminal activity. As his “power,” according to the film, largely derives from knowledge about the sexual lives of powerful men and women, he should have understood in reflecting on his own life and hidden desires that there really is no such thing as aberrant sexuality between consenting adults – in the distinctions between spheres public and private, it’s sexuality itself that becomes the weapon.

Black, then, is an interesting choice for adapting this story. His Milk was largely a traditional biopic in form, but a rather good one aided (unfortunately) by the short time frame of his subject’s life. Hoover’s life is much longer and more unwieldy, stretching through tumultuous and transitional decades in American history. But the biopic traditionally, in a strange way, positions itself as “the last word” on its subject’s life, as the final negotiation between the public and private persona – despite the fact that all these things are further abstracted and confused through the embodiment of relevant figures by famous actors (it’s difficult sometimes to see DiCaprio not as DiCaprio).

But an important scene at the film’s end reveals that several events we previously witnessed aren’t exactly what they seemed to be – not in the surprise mode of A Beautiful Mind, but in a way that is uniquely fitting for a man who constantly reworked the public personae of himself and others despite the conditions of reality, and arguably later failed to distinguish the spheres of public and private, reality and myth. This fascinating scene draws the question, “Whose biopic is this?” J. Edgar instructively explores the notion that there is no definitive story of any public figure, that the negotiation between public and private reputation is continually negotiated and mythicized over time. Even as Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) mourns over the still-warm corpse of Hoover, we are prevented from seeing this final encounter by a partition in Hoover’s bedroom. In understanding any figure of history, there are always aspects that are amplified, stories we are shielded from, and things we will never know.

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