Inside Story

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1014 words

Power play

8 February 2012

Sylvia Lawson on Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar and this year’s Australian film awards


Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover.

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover.

HOWEVER unreasonably, I find myself wishing that Clint Eastwood had somehow found a bit part for himself, Hitchcock-fashion, in the thick structure of J. Edgar – even if he’d done no more than appear and disappear in the recesses of those gloomy Washington rooms, perhaps as a reminder of time’s eventual revenges. This is a dark film in every sense, a stern film, with Hoover’s psychopathology made visible and set in operation as a central cause of the FBI’s endless build-up, the expansion and multiplication of its investigation systems. The question it calls up is: why now? Does the present American moment provide a place from which we can look back on Hoover’s FBI, as though its time was really gone? Over to WikiLeaks for the answer.

Leonardo DiCaprio appears thickened and scowling, full of admonitions; known so long as a young and youngish actor, he is called on here to play someone who was never young at all, mother’s boy though he is. As the mother, Anna Marie, Judi Dench puts in a fine turn as a woman whose energies are concentrated entirely on her son; in the one childhood sequence, she promises him a future in which he will enjoy great power. He gets it, amassing millions of documents on innocent citizens as well as on some who might have been involved with petty crime or gangsterdom, and on others, post–second world war, who might or mightn’t have been communists or fellow-travellers. The registry of fingerprints ran into many millions. That was the Cold War, or part of it; paranoia unlimited.

Hoover’s secretary, Helen Gandy, knew the vast range of the files and may have known, in the end, even more of their contents than Hoover did himself. Here Naomi Watts moves on from the CIA (Fair Game) to the Bureau; could there be other such roles, as American cinema continues to engage with recent history? Gandy will be indispensable, learn the system and become its assiduous guardian, and remain in her position for the forty-seven years of Hoover’s reign. Glamorous at first, she ages with him, as does his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer); he and Hoover just might have been lovers, and then again might not. In any event they shared lives and holidays, and one lurking suggestion is that open homosexuality was so far out of the question in the period – close as that period still is – that Hoover was virtually chaste; that self-discipline in that respect might not have been a problem for someone so fully obsessed with power. Christopher Hitchens once wrote that Hoover’s dirty little secret was simply that he had no dirty little secret.

The personal tensions explode toward the end, set off when Tolson tries to blow Hoover’s power fantasies apart. There Eastwood, and his writer Dustin Lance Black, give us an extraordinary burst of drama in which love and hate are entangled, in an intimacy that’s almost horrific. But the story which should matter most in this welter of material isn’t personal. We should see the cover-up, and Gandy’s eventual destruction of a huge repository of files, and get a stronger sense of the Bureau’s relation to other structures – the CIA obviously, but also to governments and successive administrations. Those are barely sketched, though in one exchange Jeffrey Donovan does a fair look-alike with Bobby Kennedy.

This is Eastwood’s thirty-second film as a director. There’s no easy way to relate it to earlier wonders: Mystic River, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima and Gran Torino. I name the works I care for most, those I most want to see again; but many others will want to extend the list to take in Eastwood’s much longer history as a performer, the Man with No Name in Sergio Leone’s wild westerns, Dirty Harry and all. J. Edgar adds little to the list; but however you may want to order it, a major retrospective is called for.

ON THE home front: all concerned with local film will know that the AFI awards have become the AACTAs, given annually by the newly constituted Australian Academy of Cinema and Television Arts. Given the need for an active critical climate, these should be argued over publicly and energetically; the criteria should be spelled out. Some of this year’s decisions will be generally welcomed – Snowtown’s and Justin Kurzel’s for best direction, best adapted screenplay, best lead actor (Daniel Henshall) and best supporting actress (Louise Harris); cinematographer Don McAlpine’s Raymond Longford award for lifetime achievement; and Ivan Sen’s Byron Kennedy Award for, as the citation went, “his unique artistic vision and for showing, by his resourceful multidisciplinary filmmaking, that telling stories on screen is in reach of all who have something consequential to say.” Well said; but Sen’s Toomelah wasn’t in competition, perhaps because its release dates (such as they’ve been so far) didn’t meet the criteria. The prize for best film went to Red Dog; since the twenty-one nominees included The Eye of the Storm, Snowtown and The Hunter, it seems that critical judgement bowed out and populism took over. Mrs Carey’s Concert took the award for best documentary; The Tall Man, discussed in this column some weeks ago, was its main competition – a film which had far harder work to do, and did it with style that matched its courage. For a witty and penetrating comment on the AACTA event, go to Tina Kaufman’s discussion on Screen Hub.

I recommend the truly cinematic delights of The Artist and Hugo, and hope to discuss them. Along with the remarkable Iranian film A Separation, soon to hit the circuits, they’re not to be missed.

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George Kennan in 1949. Joan Kennan Collection

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