The torn dictator

The torn dictator

Film Review | J. Edgar

That Clint Eastwood would want to direct a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover isn’t much of a surprise.

What is surprising is the wishy-washy portrait that emerges out of Dustin Lance Black’s writing and Eastwood’s direction. Ultimately, in this film, Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is neither a hero nor a messiah. In theory, ambivalence and amorality work wonders for a biopic. Judgement can often be a biographer’s biggest failing. But what Eastwood manages is like an authorized biography.

We see Hoover obsessively putting a sophisticated, scientific crime-detection laboratory in place, attending to the details assiduously and gleefully. We also see him cracking down ruthlessly on revolutionaries of the Communist party and deporting them illegally, killing radicals, adopting public measures against homosexuality and black Americans (Hoover believed Martin Luther King Jr was backed by the Communists, and tried to blackmail him so that King would not accept the Nobel Peace Prize). We see him tapping into politicians’ personal records and scandals, and conspiratorially gathering material for future blackmail. It is a severely, outrageously flawed life. Eastwood presents these facts to us as casual episodes, without focus or gravitas for a full-bodied portrait to emerge. A man such as Hoover can never be out of the bounds of morality, for it is not personal morality that’s at stake in the telling of Hoover’s story, but a commitment to humanitarian ideals that we have thankfully learnt to uphold in this century. To shun that framework for a detached portrait is lack of courage.

What would have lifted the film a few notches is if Eastwood had focused on Hoover’s complicated personal life, and made his political career, resting on lies and cruelty, a backdrop. Hoover’s lifelong relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is rife with secrecy and pain. In his lifetime, Hoover never admitted to being a homosexual; on the contrary, he maintained a homophobic persona in public. It was also known that he often vacationed with Tolson and went to the races with him—they were inseparable. Hoover’s mother, played by Dame Judi Dench, inculcated a strong sense of public duty and masculinity in him. Hoover worshipped his mother and trusted only her for his “safety", as he says. Yet it was his mother who controlled his public image. “I don’t want a daffy, a daffodil son," she tells Hoover in one of the most heartbreaking scenes in the film, when Hoover admits he doesn’t like to dance, especially with women.

DiCaprio is in fine form in J. Edgar. The transition from the young, nerdy, gung-ho officer to one of the most powerful yet insecure men in the US, surviving eight presidents, is enabled, sadly, by some shockingly poor work in prosthetics. The actor’s commitment is undoubtable, although the flat treatment limits him far below great heights. Hammer is largely uninspired and so is Naomi Watts, as Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy.

Eastwood’s cinematic language, is, as in all his films, classical and without frills. The make-up, and the way the lighting highlights it, is one of the most jarring, laughable aspects. Surely, a Clint Eastwood production could have done better.

J. Edgar is far below the director-producer’s best, technically and in narrative power. But the film’s biggest disappointment is its inertia, and forced detachment from its subject.

J. Edgar released in theatres on Friday.

Clash of the ancient and modern

Seeking rank in the governing council, Coriolanus gets caught in a web of Machiavellian politics, only to be betrayed by his countrymen. Enraged, hurt and vengeful, the exiled Coriolanus allies himself with his sworn adversary Tullus Aufidius (Gerard Butler) to wreak havoc on Rome. But even the focused and apparently emotionless Coriolanus has an Achilles heel, which eventually cements his destruction.

Having played Coriolanus on stage, Fiennes brings practised texture to the role, with glimpses of his performance as Voldemort from the ‘Harry Potter’ series slipping in. Shots of Coriolanus’ glassy green eyes on a blood-soaked face are disturbing, as is the unabashed violence in the film. What he lacks in terms of articulation of Shakespearean dialogue, Butler makes up for through his silence. Adding brilliant support is the veteran British actor Vanessa Redgrave as Coriolanus’ ambitious and manipulative mother, Volumnia.

But when it comes to captaining the team, the shaky cinematography that often fails to clearly show you what is transpiring, the passable editing, and a script that appears to gloss over critical relationships makes ‘Coriolanus’ a difficult proposition and exposes Fiennes’ directing inexperience. Even though Shakespeare’s words come alive, unlike in Baz Luhrmann’s ‘Romeo + Juliet’, for instance, here the modern setting conflicts with the ancient dialect to leave you exhausted and unmoved

‘Coriolanus’ released in theatres on Friday.

Udita Jhunjhunwala