J. Edgar Doesn’t Quite Mesh

Saw Hollywood’s latest biopic the other day: J. Edgar. Hmmm. I guess aside from the obviousness of the makeup and the slightly melodramatic performances (sorry, Clint), it was pretty well done. The structure is classic Hollywood formula, but with a twist. We are shown the rise and fall of Hoover’s career, but these scenes are framed and interspersed with glimpses of the end of his life, using the specific framing device of a manuscript being written about it all. Structurally, it worked, but I’m still not sure what the point was, other than rendering his homosexuality with grace and elegance.

One thing that impressed me was the interweaving of historical fact with personal narrative. What we can take away from this film, both as viewers and as true story screenwriters, is the importance of portraying a historical figure in the context of his society. A screen story always ultimately comes down to just one person, a main character who wants something. But the simultaneous development of historical fact in this script – the Lindberg baby, Al Capone, Nixon, et. al – not only adds texture, but also shows Hoover (Leo DiCaprio) as a product of his environment, and suggests that the societal pressures of communist threats, gangsters, and kidnappers all combined to force the creation of a crusader.

While the shape of the plot helps to infuse Hoover’s story with the history that helped shape him, the theme (the new evils of society making it necessary for a crusader) is nearly invisible. A big film like this one will often carry its message tucked between what the character wants and what they need. What Hoover wants is to stamp out the criminal element and make America safe again. As for what he needs, as the song goes, he needs to be needed. I guess the problem with this story is that what he wants and what he needs really never intersect or mesh in any way. So we are left with two separate stories, rather than one coherent whole. But then again, maybe that disconnect is a good fit for this man, whose public persona and private life were about as far apart as they could be.

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