Even Clint Eastwood’s Worst Film Does This Right

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Clint Eastwood always gets historical biopics right, even if the movie itself isn’t that great.

Without a question, one of the hardest working directors in film history is Clint Eastwood, one of the greatest legends in the medium. Eastwood, who is officially 92 years old, is about to start work on Juror #2, a courtroom thriller that he has publicly said will be his last movie. Even if he isn’t always a steady director, Eastwood is undoubtedly one of the most prolific ones with around 40 films to his credit.
While his classics such as Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and A Better World reign supreme within the eyes of his fans, it’s hard to ignore the failure of doomed projects such as Firefox, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The 15:17 to Paris, and Hereafter. While many would cite his 2011 biopic J. Edgar as a particularly egregious stain on his resume, the misguided examination of one of American history’s most controversial icons certainly presents an interesting, researched guide to the era, complete with some stunning historical detail and a genuinely effective ensemble of performances.

J. Edgar examines J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) life using a nonlinear narrative that hops all over with no clear trajectory. For as little time as Eastwood spent on the set, he likely spent less in the editing room. The movie alternates between Hoover’s ascent to prominence in 1919—during which he brings down some of the most infamous criminals, gangsters, and outlaws of the time—and the Federal Bureau of Investigation’s establishment as one of the most potent institutions in the American government’s apparatus. It’s implied that his close relationship with special agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) was passionate and sexual in nature. He appoints him as his second-in-command. An elderly Hoover narrates his life experience in flashbacks, reflecting on his feelings toward Tolson and the homophobic terror that he associates with his mother (Judi Dench).

Eastwood Engages With History in ‘J. Edgar’

Much of the criticism that Eastwood received for J. Edgar was due to the egregiously awkward makeup effects; it’s really hard to take anything in the film seriously when the old Hoover looks like he’s a Johnny Knoxville character. Additionally, the broad generalizations about history, and particularly Eastwood’s decision to treat speculation about Hoover’s sexuality as fact, were criticized heavily. Unsurprisingly, the notoriously conservative filmmaker’s depiction of the FBI, the justice system, and homosexuality were difficult to stomach for a lot of viewers. However, J. Edgar certainly provides an interesting roadmap to history; even if it’s filtered through Eastwood’s strange perspective, it’s never unengaging.

DiCaprio’s performance is only effective when viewed through a very specific context; the film is not a literal depiction of Hoover’s life, but rather the version of his history that he wants to be remembered. Since the film is framed with Hoover narrating his life to a series of journalists with only brief moments shared with an older Tolson, it’s evident that there’s nothing objective about what’s being presented. This helps to explain why the film is so haphazard in how it skims through historical events breezily and combines complex issues and scenarios for simplicity’s sake. It’s not laziness on behalf of Eastwood, but a breakdown of Hoover’s imagined legacy.

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Of course, what Hoover’s legacy should be is a controversial point of debate, and one that Eastwood himself seems to be unclear on. Was he a “dogmatic, cruel little man” as Tolson claims, or a victim of an intolerant era that turned him into a self-hating, rebellious nationalist who took it upon himself to “cleanse” the country? Was the FBI a scheme on Hoover’s part to finally have control over something, even if he couldn’t control his own behavior? Is the entire film an extended conspiracy theory, as the film concludes with his assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) destroying all of the recorded files so that they can’t be obtained by the Nixon administration? By simply raising these points of debate, Eastwood was able to start a discussion that might have gotten non-history buffs to do a bit of their own research.

Eastwood’s Productions Are Unique

Since The Revenant was released only a few years before DiCaprio’s performance finally won him the Academy Award for Best Actor, many at the time considered his performance to be nothing more than “awards bait.” A larger-than-life figure requires a larger-than-life performance, and DiCaprio gives a broad performance, even though a scene in which he testifies before the Senate Appropriations Committee feels like it was created especially to be a “Oscar clip.” The way Dencht transforms Hoover’s mother into a villainous stepmother from a Disney film is a trait shared by the whole ensemble. The sequence in which she tells Hoover straight out that she would prefer he commit suicide than come out as gay is so obviously evil that it almost seems like satire. Even Hammer’s performance seems almost deliberately creepy, though given everything that’s transpired recently that may not have been the worst creative choice.

Eastwood is renowned for his relaxed demeanor on set, which is relatively refreshing compared to the countless stories about obsessive auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (and those emulating him) that belittle their crew to pay attention to even the most minor detail. The cartoonish nature of the production, and particularly the wacky makeup, has almost become a charming staple of Eastwood’s historical films now; despite the criticism that he received for being impartial and uninterested in accuracy, Eastwood employed similar tactics with the old-age makeup in Jersey Boys, the infamous fake baby in American Sniper, the use of the real subjects in The 15:17 to Paris, and the conspiratorial depiction of the media in Richard Jewell.

Whether it’s Frankie Valli, Chris Kyle, Sully Sullenberger, Richard Jewell, or another historical person, Eastwood tells the stories of historical people he believes should be shared. Though it’s always debatable if he should be the one to inform them, Eastwood can definitely elicit significant reactions from his audiences. Nothing is worse than a forgettable movie, yet none of Eastwood’s productions fall into that category. It’s truly amazing that he has been igniting controversy for more than 60 years.

 

 

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