Saturday, November 12, 2011

Clint Eastwood: Brief History of Man (J. Edgar)

Leonardo Dicaprio, J. Edgar, Warner Bros. Pictures, 2011.

With his plaintive, washed miracle movies, Clint Eastwood has proven himself one of our great American masters. In the last twenty years, he has gifted us two of the best American films ever made, Unforgiven and Mystic River. He has also afforded us a handful of exceptional nuggets of pop culture and history, especially A Perfect World, The Bridges of Madison County, Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Hereafter. What other contemporary filmmaker has offered us such a streaming, aching body of (recent) work which has infected the way we watch and make movies? His touch is of a Ford or a Hawks in these fading days.

His fascination with mankind and bureaucracy is carried on into his perplexing, unmissable new film, J. Edgar. In essence a fractured biopic of infamous FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, Eastwood works hard with his intuitive scripter, Dustin Lance Black (Big Love, Milk), to dig into the heart and mind of one of the most feared and influential American men of the 20th century. On the fringes are the usual earmarks of a filmed biography, the other celebrated characters, the big events, the shading in at the corners. But what is truly remarkable about Eastwood's new picture is that it never loses sight of the man, the weak, frightened boy quaking in Hoover's shoes.

Seamlessly slipping from his young adulthood and rise to his golden years and fall, the classical structure and reliable Eastwood style are punctuated by a sadness which cannot be sewed in. Yet tragedy is somber and only seeps out at intervals in Eastwood's capable hands. His old-fashioned yet personal biography does feel scrappy and disjointed, but that is all apart of its endearment.

Leonardo Dicaprio is the undeniable soul of the film; he brings a gravity to Hoover which is dignified but sorrowful. His turn is physical, restrained and shattering. It is easily one of the best performances of his  career. Although at times critical of aging make-up, it grew on me here and became an integral part of the plotline. Armie Hammer gives a breakthrough performance as Edgar's lifetime companion, Clyde Tolson. Naomi Watts also gives one of her career best turns, as Edgar's lifetime secretary. Her eyes belie fear and love. Judi Dench is likewise exceptional as Hoover's smothering mother.

The homosexuality is ingeniously done by Black and Eastwood. We feel entirely steeped in the time periods allocated, which are brought to life perfectly by Eastwood's stock team. Tom Stern's cinematography is a thing of faded, nostalgic beauty. Eastwood's score is mournful and evocative. This all comes together mysteriously, with a master's fine touch which declares that this man's work, this man himself, represents all masculinity in the 20th century, hiding and expectant.

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