My wife and I had intended to see Clint Eastwood’s film J. Edgar. But then we were dissuaded from doing so by a host of mediocre reviews. These complained that what should have been Eastwood’s masterpiece was, in fact, boring and ill-elegant.
Eventually, at my wife’s insistence, we went to see it anyway. And I am very glad that we did. Although the theater was mostly empty, those few of us present got to witness an under appreciated classic. Far from having failed, Eastwood produced a subtle and textured tour de force.
Let us begin with the fact that his title character was a flawed human being. J. Edgar Hoover, as sterlingly portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, was a tortured soul who apparently sought to make up for his own perceived weaknesses by pursuing greatness. He was clearly vain and too often took credit for the successes of others.
Nonetheless, he was a genuine American patriot who saved the nation from many potential disasters. What is more, he obviously created a cutting edge law enforcement agency in the F.B.I. Indeed, this bureau probably became as successful as it has been, in part, because ofHoover’s foibles.
What struck my wife and I most is how well Eastwood wove the facts ofHoover’s early life together with his later achievements in a way that explains much of what happened. It thereby turned the man from a cartoon character into a sympathetic human being.
And that is why I think so many of the reviews were lukewarm. The critics, most of whom are liberal, were expecting a savage attack on a man they consider vile. They wanted to see him ripped from stem to stern so as to thoroughly discredit everything he did. They would especially have enjoyed seeing his alleged homosexuality turned into an exercise in biting ridicule.
Eastwood, however, was much too circumspect about these matters. He intended to show both sides of the story and therefore did not provide good propaganda. He also avoided the pitfall of simplistic melodrama. Thus, he did not single out a particular event to illuminate with overwrought emotion.
As it happens, I later mentioned the film in one of my classes, where the only students who had seen it were the criminal justice majors. Moreover, these folks enjoyed it immensely. For them, it illuminated the history of a field they intend to enter.
Others, who value a window into American history or a restrained psychological study, may equally take pleasure in Eastwood’s work. I, for one, salute him for having the courage to eschew the dramatic distortions that have become the norm in a highly politicized movie industry.