I can’t remember seeing a film in 2011 that caused me to go all Addison DeWitt (the acerbic, nasty critic in All About Eve). In years past, a few have tested the theory, “No one sets out to make a bad movie.” What? You haven’t seen 27 Dresses, License To Wed, Hollow Man, or The Truth About Charlie? Feel blessed.
Believe it or not, it’s difficult for me to criticize those who attempt to entertain us. And I mean no disrespect concerning the abilities of those involved in the following production. It’s the agenda I take exception to, not so much the artistic endeavors.
J. Edgar is a good movie, some will argue. If you read my review, you’ll learn why I disagree. But here’s the reason it has become my least favorite of 2011. The entire production seems built on supposition rather than fact. As directed by Clint Eastwood, it is cynical in its construction.
I understand, J. Edgar is not a documentary, but many scenes are presumptuous, done in the incendiary style of Oliver Stone (who never met an authority figure he didn’t mock). No one would have had access to the private moments that make up almost the entirety of J. Edgar. So, why this character assassination of the formulator of the FBI some forty years after his death?
I don’t mean to defend J. Edgar Hoover, but Leonardo DiCaprio’s take on the man is more a caricature than a three-dimensional portrait. We see a dark side, but little else, causing J. Edgar to come across as if an agenda was the driving force, not storytelling.
Sometime in the 1990s, a staff of eight researchers worked for over a year investigating Hoover's life and the various allegations that had surfaced after his death. Screenwriters Robert W. Fisher and Rick Pamplin then wrote an original screenplay based upon their findings. Hoover was the end result. Filmed in 1999, this one-man show featured Ernest Borgnine as Mr. Hoover defending himself against tabloid charges that he was a cross-dressing homosexual, used "secret files" to blackmail public figures, authorized illegal wiretaps, and a variety of other misuses of his office. Borgnine's performance was then intercut with interview segments of Deke DeLoach, who served the FBI for over 28 years and was the last living witness to the Hoover administration.
During a phone interview with that film's producer/director, Rick Pamplin, I had asked why the FBI didn’t debunk the dress rumor in the beginning. He told me, "The charges were so ludicrous that they didn't think anyone would take them seriously. After the tabloids printed unsubstantiated remarks by a woman with a grudge against Hoover and the FBI, the rumors took on a life of their own. And quite frankly," says Pamplin, "the FBI didn't know how to respond."
Well, since then, we have become well aware of the strength of a headline on a supermarket tabloid, no matter how ridiculous the allegation.
To me, J. Edgar was a film more determined to tear down than to build up. Several films this year were dominated by this element – cynicism. While I don’t think we should be naïve about our leaders, I keep wondering if too much cynicism is as destructive as the exposed wrongdoing. But that is a discussion for another day.