VIDEO ESSAY: The End of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood

VIDEO ESSAY: The End of Violence: The Conclusions of Clint Eastwood

It took me years to learn how to watch a Clint Eastwood movie. For one thing, I tended to watch them far apart and to rely on memory of earlier films to prepare myself for current ones. But given the gaps in time between viewings, I should have been more suspicious of how I remembered them. I saw Unforgiven when it first came out on videotape, but I was in my late teens then. It seemed plodding and clunky, and, to my jaded young eyes, old. That original impression solidified in my mind, tarnishing my general impression of Eastwood as a director. (Plodding, clunky, old.) I skipped the Eastwood movies that seemed skippable, the ones that didn’t get much attention. Eastwood was a creature from another era, and I was sure he was just a dumb cowboy at heart. Sure, he’d won Oscars, but that just cemented the idea of Eastwood as the embodiment of middlebrow mediocrity. “Most of the good directors,” I’d say to anyone who would listen, “don’t win that award.”

It’s easy to underestimate Eastwood, even if you’re not relying on vague memories and snobbery. His image as the embodiment of vigilante conservatism slithers through the collective cultural consciousness. He’s Dirty Harry, he’s the Man with No Name. Our assumptions deliver him to us as what we expect him to be. The tough guy, the grizzled guy, the man’s man, the white savior, the relic.

nullThus, it wasn’t until Gran Torino that I could say I really watched an Eastwood movie. The ones I’d seen before were films I looked at as the films I’d expected them to be. But Gran Torino shocked me into seeing it. I’d seen reviews belittling the movie, and I expected it to be a not-quite-vaguely racist heap of claptrap. I don’t remember even when I decided to watch it, or why. But I did.

I didn’t know what to make of Gran Torino on that first viewing, because it sneaked into my amygdala and splattered feelings in all directions. The overwrought Christ imagery at the end was a bit much, but still … the images after that, of Thao driving off into his own, inherited America, pulled true tears from my eyes. This was not claptrap. Eastwood was up to something. And the film was, in its own way, and on its own terms, more subversive than most Hollywood films ever dare to be. (I’ve explored my response to Gran Torino more fully in a previous video essay.)

I watched Gran Torino again and again, seeking the meaning that lodged in the bit of free space between my assumptions, the meaning that had come from being so unexpectedly moved by a movie I’d expected to detest.

With the fervor of a convert, I binged my way through Eastwood’s oeuvre. Again and again I saw what had so fascinated me in Gran Torino: the way Eastwood used his own iconicity against itself, the way he presented masculinity and violence as intoxicating elixirs of destruction, the way he danced (sometimes awkwardly) on a tightrope between exploiting our basest desires and blowing them all to hell.

Drucilla Cornell’s Clint Eastwood and Issues of American Masculinity provided me with ways of working through what Eastwood’s films can mean. I think Cornell sometimes gives the films a bit too much credit, because sometimes these movies are as symptomatic of the world into which they were released as they are critical of it. (But we need to see symptoms. Or, rather, we need symptoms to be made visible. How do you diagnose a disease without them?) Nonetheless, her central point convinced me: if we want to think about the force of American masculinity, the films of Clint Eastwood are a rich and vivid source.

Consider violence, a feature common to most of Eastwood’s films. These are not pacifist manifestos—violence is shown to be sometimes necessary, sometimes useful. But usually it is also destructive and corrupting. It gets people what they want in the short term, or it saves their lives, but the cost is great, and their lives are shrunken and shattered. This is true even in the Dirty Harry films, where we may join the fantasy of wearing the wisecracking, bureaucracy-hating vigilante’s mask of bravado, but would we want to live as Harry lives, to become what he became? As Faust could tell you, fantasies come with a hefty price.

nullWe need to pay close attention to the conclusions of Eastwood’s movies, particularly the ones he directs and stars in, because these films allow him to configure and reconfigure his iconicity. From Play Misty for Me to Gran Torino, he has played jazz riffs on the idea of “Clint Eastwood,” repeating and revising the figure he embodies. Nowhere are the riffs more poignantly played than in The Outlaw Josey Wales (the subject of a previous video essay of mine), one of Eastwood’s most complex and subtle studies of the avenging male hero. The ending is where the meanings swirl old gestures together into something new—the violent hero, ruined by war, exhausted by anger, turns away from killing and rides off into a sunset. He’s quietly wounded, likely bleeding to death. Like so many Eastwood characters, he has saved a ragtag community that now has no space for him. He is the demon that must be expelled. In that, he is less Faust than Mephisto.

Again and again, Eastwood’s characters end up going off into ambiguity. What are we to make, for instance, of the conclusion of Million Dollar Baby? It ends with a sort of triumph and grace, yes, but what are we, the observers, left with at this moment? The film’s story positions us to sympathize with Frankie, to feel the dilemma he feels, but should we conclude from our sympathy that Frankie did the right thing? That death is better than handicapped life? I can fully believe a character like Maggie would, in those circumstances and at that point in her treatment, want what Frankie gave her—that she did, indeed, see it as triumph. But I don’t know if we’re required to agree. The film wraps us in its emotions, but then steps back and at the end leaves us with images of a lost man, a lonely man, an exiled angel of death. Here, Eastwood’s violent character isn’t exiled or exorcised from a community he saved and that will, presumably, prosper without him. Here, he is simply exiled. What meaning we make of that is our own.

Matthew Cheney’s work has been published by English Journal, One Story, Web Conjunctions, Strange Horizons, Failbetter.com, Ideomancer, Pindeldyboz, Rain Taxi, Locus, The Internet Review of Science Fiction and SF Site, among other places, and he is the former series editor for Best American Fantasy. He teaches English, Women’s Studies, and Communications & Media Studies at Plymouth State University.

PICTURES OF LOSS: HEREAFTER, directed by Clint Eastwood

PICTURES OF LOSS: HEREAFTER, directed by Clint Eastwood

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EDITOR'S NOTE: We are proud to present an unusual and personal series of articles by critic Peter Tonguette about grief and mourning on film, and how certain moviegoing experiences affected him in the aftermath of his father's death. Peter's series includes pieces on Hereafter, The Darjeeling Limited, Running on Empty, Men Don't Leave and A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries. If you would like to read the introduction to this series, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: The Darjeeling Limited, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Running On Empty, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: Men Don't Leave, click here. If you would like to read Pictures of Loss: A Soldier's Daughter Never Cries, click here.Matt Zoller Seitz

Joan Didion says, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” In the months after my father died, the story I told myself was that I could write as I always had, about movies and movie directors, and that this would, in fact, serve as a useful distraction from my grief. I was certain that my professionalism would see me through this terrible time.

Most would call it denial.

Soon enough, I found that I couldn’t sit for most movies, and the last thing I wanted to do was write about them. The only words that mattered now—that my father haddied—were the words I could not bring myself to write. I suspect the same is true in the aftermath of any catastrophic event. To write of anything else feels trivial; what could possibly take precedence over the catastrophe? Yet to write about the catastrophe itself is just too difficult.

I managed to do a few interviews for the book I was finishing and a handful of magazine assignments, which I eagerly accepted before finding that my usual dedication and focus had forsaken me. I tried everything, including reminding myself that my father would want me to proceed apace with my career. In hindsight, my putting the matter that way—which I did on more than one occasion—seems telling. If I was so certain about continuing to write about movies, why would I even raise the possibility of stopping?

Eventually, I was nudged back to work by the prospect of collaborating with a friend on a small editing project. The friendship was more helpful to me than the work, which was not particularly creative, but it was a start. Since I hadn’t worked on a consistent basis in months, I regarded the project as a challenge and was eager to do well. Because I had a
partner in crime, and because she was a friend, I had no choice but to hold up my end of the bargain.

The exercise was a turning point. I began to write again in earnest, but ever so slowly, and only gradually did it dawn on me that I had a book to finish, that there were people in this world who actually wanted me to write for them. But what allowed me to see it through to completion, I realize now, was not the professionalism I imagined I possessed or the pressure of not wanting to disappoint a good friend.
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My book was about the late filmmaker James Bridges, whose films were often about the heartache of losing a loved one. This is certainly the theme of his best film, September 30, 1955, which stars Richard Thomas as a college student in Arkansas who is bereft at the death of his idol James Dean. Long before my father’s death, I had made voluminous notes about the film, but as I marshaled them into a manuscript, I found that I was obsessed by it. “Death is never far in Bridges’s films,” I wrote, and it wasn’t far from my mind as I typed those words. At first, I did not know why I dwelt so intensely on September 30, 1955. I’m sure I was convinced I did so because it was “among the very greatest of American films of the 1970s.”

But something else was afoot.

I found myself relating to the grief of the Richard Thomas character in a very personal way. I understood his sorrow—and I bickered with it, too. He lost a movie star, not a parent or a family member or a friend. He should know better, though I myself hadn’t always known better. As a teenager, I was always very affected by the death of a public figure I admired, like Stanley Kubrick. Yet when J.D. Salinger died several weeks after I lost my father, I was very sorry, but not devastated.

I watched and re-watched September 30, 1955, and the words poured forth, but I was still unaware of the reason why. So I didn’t seek out other films that gave me the jolt it had.

Instead, they seemed to find me.

One night, I was working in my room when someone decided to put in a DVD of Clint Eastwood’s Hereafter. I used to love Eastwood’s films. I was the sort of person who considered Bronco Billy to be a masterpiece. I saw Mystic River three times when it was first released in theatres. In my present state, however, keeping up with Eastwood was low on my list of priorities. I’m sure I thought, “Why bother? What difference does it make if it’s any good or not?” But as the film started, I caught myself turning to watch every few minutes. A snippet of dialogue would intrigue me. An overheard moment would pull me in. I glimpsed a scene here, a scene there, and I found it harder and harder to turn away. I soon left my work and moved to a chair closer to the TV. The film did more than command my attention. I was—literally—being drawn in by it.
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In Hereafter, Matt Damon plays George Lonegan, a psychic who does not wish do be a psychic. It is one of Damon’s best performances. Even though he declines to help many sad, desperate people who feel they can benefit from his gift, he always retains sympathy for the grief-stricken amongst us, a reflection of Eastwood’s own compassionate perspective.

Has the director ever filmed a moment as heartrending as when a British youngster named Marcus (whose twin brother Jason has died in an accident) looks to his sibling’s empty bed and says, “Goodnight, Jas”?

Obsessed with communicating with his brother, Marcus learns of George and tracks him
down when George serendipitously makes a trip to London. Marcus wants him to do a reading, but the answer is—predictably—no. “I don’t do that anymore,” he insists in a huff. But Marcus will not give up that easily and proceeds to stake himself outside of George’s hotel room all day. George’s basic decency finally gets the better of him, as he invites Marcus inside. He begins by asking Marcus a stream of questions, with Marcus either answering or nodding his head yes to each. “Someone close to you has passed away… A male… He was young when he died… Is this person your brother? Older brother? But not by much, he says. Only by a few minutes… I’m sorry, kid.”

Because we have seen Marcus and Jason’s story unfold, we know that everything George says is true. Because George has only just met Marcus, we also know that his psychic abilities are therefore real.
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It turns out that Eastwood’s attitude toward the supernatural is as matter-of-fact as his screen persona. He seems to have followed the suggestion of the poet and novelist Robert Graves, who once wrote that “one should accept ghosts very much as one accepts fire—a more common but equally mysterious phenomenon.” In Hereafter, Eastwood accepts George’s abilities much as Graves accepted ghosts and fire: at face value. For example, when George is pestered into doing a reading by a young woman he has a romanticinterest in (played by Bryce Dallas Howard), he relays a message from her deceased father that is greatly upsetting to her, thus ending their nascent relationship. Why would George do this unless he really was psychic? After all, from his perspective, would it not have made more sense to tell the woman something she wanted to hear?

Rilke wrote the line “Who says that all must vanish?” in a different context, but it is easy to imagine Eastwood and screenwriter Peter Morgan asking it of us, as they confidently but casually assert that loved ones are still here, somehow, even after they seem gone. My favorite moment in Hereafter comes when George tours the London home of Charles Dickens (his favorite author). He pauses to admire the painting “Dickens’s Dream,” which, it is explained by a tour guide, shows a dozing Dickens surrounded by “characters from his novels floating in the air around him.” The description beautifully anticipates the way George says Jason describes the afterlife to him: “The weightlessness. He says that’s cool.”

Not since Evelyn Waugh’s A Handful of Dust has the work of Charles Dickens been referenced to such powerful effect.
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Even though Hereafter is about death and near-death, I didn’t find it grim. Just the opposite. I remembered the strange truth of what Stanley Kubrick told Stephen King when he was about to make The Shining into a movie: “Well, the concept of the ghost presupposes life after death. That’s a cheerful concept, isn’t it?” There isn’t a single character in Hereafter who I would call cheerful, yet Marcus walks away from his session with George with the reassurance he has been seeking. “If you’re worried about being on your own, don’t be,” his brother communicates to him, through George. “You’re not. Because he is you and you are him. One cell. One person. Always.”

If we must suspend disbelief to fully share in Marcus’s solace at hearing those words, let us remind ourselves that we are in good company. At the end of his final film, Family Plot, Hitchcock allows a fake psychic (Barbara Harris) to demonstrate authentic telepathic abilities. “Blanche, you did it! You are psychic!” her husband (Bruce Dern) exclaims, as if imitating Hitchcock’s own incredulousness. But it’s true—she is!

Of course I loved Hereafter: here was a film that expressed not only my pain but also to my most basic, private wish, the same wish expressed by the son who loses his father in Paul Brickman’s Men Don’t Leave (discussed later this week): “I want to see him again. One more time.”

Peter Tonguette is the author of Orson Welles Remembered and The Films of James Bridges. He is currently writing a critical study of the films of Peter Bogdanovich for the University Press of Kentucky and editing a collection of interviews with Bogdanovich for the University Press of Mississippi. You can visit Peter's website here.

Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” takes few risks with its controversial subject

Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” takes few risks with its controversial subject

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You'd think Clint Eastwood would be the right guy to direct a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. After all, who better to tell the story of the 20th century's most influential law enforcement officer, the man who wrote the rule book on fighting crime only to disregard those rules when they prevented him from getting his man, than Dirty Harry himself? Or, to be less obvious, what would the man responsible for White Hunter Black Heart, A Perfect World and Million Dollar Baby — movies about men who defied authority, be it Hollywood, the law or God — bring to the life story of the man who held authority over the country for nearly 50 years? Alas, Clint Eastwood's stately biopic J. Edgar is a frustrating experience. For nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes we are held captive by the possibility of a major revelation or insight into a man whose obsession with cataloging every single detail of a person's personal and professional lives foretold the collapse of privacy. We get hints, intimations and suggestions of darker urges that shaped Hoover's behavior, but nothing concrete about the man's personality, and no attitude whatsoever toward his actions. Eastwood mistakes vagueness for ambiguity and puts us in the position of being armchair psychiatrists.

Working from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, J. Edgar certainly has a high-end pedigree, but the film is so concerned with being "refined" that it sacrifices momentum. Opening with Hoover dictating his autobiography in an effort to set the record straight, the film shows promise, even if the investigative flashback structure it employs should've been retired a long time ago. It inevitably leads to a then-this-happened-then-this-followed-by-this rhythm that can be a grind. But Hoover's origin story is fascinating, especially as he tries to convince his boss Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) to invest in new sciences like fingerprint analysis. We see how Hoover's crusade against communist radicals led to his being put in charge of the F.B.I., which he would remake into his own image of clean-cut American righteousness. We are introduced to the three key people in his life: his mother Annie (Judi Dench), who molded her Edgar into a model of properness; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary; and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his most loyal…friend?
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Then…we wait, patiently, for a theme or pattern to emerge. One never quite comes through. By trying to condense a 50-year history into a 2 1/3-hour runtime, J. Edgar becomes a highlight reel with some of the best parts edited out. Hoover's war against '30s gangsters like Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger is reduced to more or less a montage. Hoover during World War II? Nothing. Hoover during McCarthyism? We get one line of dialogue dismissing McCarthy as an opportunist. The movie's greatest flaw is how it does not deal with Hoover's clashes with the Kennedys, especially Bobby. Hoover's hatred of Bobby Kennedy was legendary, and for a movie about his life to omit that part is just wrong. Instead we get too many scenes of Hoover's mother laying on guilt trips about what he must do. This is Psych 101 screenwriting territory, way below the thinking of Eastwood and his collaborators.

The most obvious (and possibly most entertaining) approach to this material would be to treat it like one of those ripped-from-the-headlines '30s Warners pictures, complete with gossip and innuendo. (We get a charge in one scene when we see famous bits from The Public Enemy being shown to a cheering audience.) The other approach to the material would be to concentrate on just a few defining moments. It is extremely difficult to condense a man's life into an extended runtime. Malcolm X did it, but then again it was focusing on 20 years, not 50. (It still managed to bring it up to the present with that startling final scene of Nelson Mandela addressing a classroom.) <i>Nixon</i> also did it, but Oliver Stone, unlike Eastwood, has a singular gift for innovative visuals and editing that gives his movies drive. The model for a movie like J. Edgar is something like Danny DeVito's criminally underrated Hoffa. Like J. Edgar, it also uses a flashback structure, but screenwriter David Mamet doesn't bother with trying to cram a man's life into a conventional narrative. Hoffa is simply presented as-is, and we take in how those around him react to his actions. By doing that, we come away understanding Hoffa's achievements as a labor leader, but also understand that his ego and quest for power led to him eventually losing sight of his original intentions. (Interestingly, the highlight of Hoffa is the extended sequences where he squares off with Robert Kennedy.) A typical scene in J. Edgar is of two people sitting in a darkened room talking around what is on their minds. If you're going to make a movie consisting of these kinds of scenes, you'd better make sure they have something interesting to say. Or, at the very least make clear what it is they are <i>not</i> saying. (Tom Stern's drab cinematography doesn't help matters. While not as bad as his work in Eastwood's Changeling, it makes you not want to see the color brown for at least three months. His lighting is like Gordon Willis minus texture — or soul.)

At 81, Eastwood has spent the last 10 to 15 years making movies where he seems to be re-examining not only his own image, but the image of stoic, non-verbal men, He's been deconstructing the notion of masculinity before men were told it was okay to get in touch with their feelings. The idea that men needed to do whatever it took to get the job done was being undercut by the (necessary) assertion of feminine and racial equality. Eastwood's best films are about men reeling from change and how they either reject it or are humbled by it. In Million Dollar Baby (his best film in the last decade), boxing trainer Frankie Dunn is constantly questioning God's plan only to get a comeuppance when he demands unquestioning faith in his training methods from his fighters. A Perfect World saw Eastwood deconstructing the Western showdown by setting a generational clash of law and disorder on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. (A Perfect World is a far more complex breakdown of Western myths than the somewhat overrated Unforgiven.) White Hunter Black Heart told a thinly fictionalized version of John Huston's recklessness while making The African Queen, with Eastwood playing Huston as a filmmaker learning that trying to exert the same kind of control he has on a movie set in everyday life can lead to self-destruction. Even less successful efforts saw Eastwood attempting to re-think history, considering if his generation got things wrong. His two-part World War II saga Flags of Our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima had moments of great irony hinting that Eastwood might've learned something from Saving Private Ryan; too bad, in the end, he wound up buying into the myths of the Greatest Generation. Hereafter found Eastwood confronting mortality; too bad the movie got all New Age-y in its final sequence. And in the disastrous Gran Torino, Eastwood directed himself in what felt like his farewell performance as Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, a longstanding racist forced to realize he was wrong about everything; too bad the movie played Walt's racism for laughs and came off like a recruitment film for the Tea Party.
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Every movie Eastwood makes seems to be in preparation for his next one. Taking on the life of J. Edgar Hoover suggested Eastwood was ready to tackle one of the most polarizing figures of his generation, and by doing so confronting the two topics he's often accused of shying away from: sexuality and race. There is evidence that Eastwood is more than capable of handling adult sexuality; his performance in the New Orleans cop procedural Tightrope saw him playing a man grappling with unhealthy sexual urges. Unfortunately Eastwood has given his critics more than enough opportunities to accuse him of insensitivity with ugly portrayals of women and gays in movies like The Rookie and Sudden Impact. His track record for handling race is even spottier, with black characters being subservient yet equal. (Don't even bother bringing up Bird.) But with J. Edgar it would seem Eastwood would have to tackle these issues head-on. He doesn't. He blinks. Hoover's sexuality is treated as a case of repression crossed with the smothering of a mother from hell. Screenwriter Black, who wrote the terrifically insightful Milk, seems to have written the script of J. Edgar from a 2011 perspective, as if he's saying, "Isn't it too bad Hoover wasn't allowed to live in a more open society where his sexuality wouldn't have been an issue?" That's a great notion but it's one that Eastwood and DiCaprio are not operating from. The movie winds up working at cross-purposes, and would've been better served by simply dumping all the scenes with Hoover's mother or just relegating her to one early sequence. (That's why biopics like Citizen Cohn and The Aviator work so well.) That extra time could've been used to strengthen one of the other more interesting relationships, like Hoover's connection with his longtime companion Clyde Tolson. As it stands, Hoover's relationship with Tolson comes awfully close in some scenes to resembling that of Mr. Burns and Smithers. They're like the first bromance. They're so chaste in their affection that when they have their big fight, the scene seems to come out of nowhere. When they kiss, we laugh, not out of nervousness, but because there's no passion or preparation. When Hoover takes out Ms. Gandy on a date and she rebuffs his advances, we don't know if her rejection sours him on women or if he's thrilled that she's as dedicated to her work as he is. On a basic psychological level the movie doesn't even bother with suggesting that Hoover wanted to sleep with his mother, Ms. Gandy or Tolson. We think that's what's going on, but we're never certain. (If we were to go by the movie, Hoover apparently died without ever having sex.)

And Hoover's racism is transformed into his crusade against communist radicals. His battles against civil rights leaders are reduced to his attempts to ruin the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he's listening to a recording of King having sex, we wonder if Hoover is jealous of such a blatant act of sexuality. The same goes with his taping of President Kennedy. Is Hoover envious because they're having all the fun? And why does he hate communists so much? We never hear him articulate an argument. When Bobby Kennedy tells him that our enemies are now foreign, not domestic, he makes perfect sense. But Hoover disregards his warnings, suggesting a deep-seeded paranoia of everyone. There's a whiff if Jack D. Ripper to his campaign against Dr. King. He believes King to be a communist threatening to contaminate the soul of the American people. (I was going to write "our precious bodily fluids.") A racial slur by Hoover's mother plants the notion early on that he is someone who parrots his mother's views, but we never hear him use a racial slur himself.

But there are moments when you feel the movie starting to come alive. All the scenes involving Charles Lindbergh and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby crackle with tension. (Unfortunately these scenes are broken up by that damn flashback structure. You spend a good part of the time doing your own mental re-editing of the movie.) This entire episode should be the centerpiece of the movie. It should both showcase Hoover's achievements and his weaknesses. His defiance of his superiors to employ new techniques of gathering evidence in order to apprehend those responsible for the Lindbergh kidnapping plays like the origin story of C.S.I. The case also shows Hoover's eagerness to present the appearance of justice without bothering with the thorny details of degrees of guilt or innocence. DiCaprio gives another strong performance, all the more impressive considering he has to fill in the blanks of the script. He's able to suggest what isn't on the page through a glance or a sigh or his old-man shuffle. (The aging makeup would seem to have a lock on the Oscar.) There are moments where DiCaprio gets you to feel Hoover's loneliness and repressed rage. A startling scene late in the movie when Hoover is dictating a letter that he hopes will intimidate Dr. King into declining the Nobel Peace Prize suggests the darker movie this could've been, while also pointing out the weakness in the character of Ms. Gandy. It's the only time she seems to question her "Edgar" if he's doing the right thing. Is this really the first instance of someone questioning Hoover? I doubt it. Very little is known about Hoover's secretary, but that shouldn't prevent Eastwood and his team from speculating on the nature of their relationship. The same goes for Armie Hammer's characterization of Tolson. There's a hint of Tolson assuming the role of submissive to Hoover, but it's never followed through. Hammer, coming off his triumph as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, gives one of those supporting performances you find on the IMDb page of big movie stars; it's a good credit to have at the start of your career, as proof you're willing to tackle "risky" material. He's captivating and, like DiCaprio, does his best to fill in the blanks. And Josh Lucas gives his best performance since Wonderland in the small but vivid role of Charles Lindbergh.

In the end, J. Edgar is neither defensive nor offensive. It's the definition of "respectful," and that's something you'd never expect from a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. There is one scene towards the end that does manage to create a sense of discomfort. A montage of late '60s turmoil (including the assassination of Dr. King) is juxtaposed with Hoover narrating that if we don't remember history we're destined to repeat it. For a few fleeting moments, the movie seems to be offering a justification of Hoover's tactics. The scene suggests that the upheavals of the Vietnam era were a result of Hoover not being allowed to keep an eye on everyone. That's a provocative stance that the movie doesn't attempt to defend or refute. (A better movie would pick a side. A great movie would suggest Hoover was both right and wrong.) That scene is topped by a brief scene of Nixon being informed of Hoover's death; the president's immediate response is like an outtake from an Oliver Stone movie. It's moments like these that J. Edgar flirts with playing dirty.

San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.