Clint Eastwood

Even Clint Eastwood’s Worst Film Does This Right

Clint Eastwood always gets historical biopics right, even if the movie itself isn't that great.


Clint Eastwood is one of cinema’s greatest legends, and there’s no doubt that he’s one of the hardest working directors in the history of the industry. At the crisp age of 92, Eastwood is set to begin production on Juror #2, a legal thriller that he’s announced officially will be his final film. With nearly 40 films credited to his name, Eastwood is certainly one of the most productive filmmakers out there, even if he’s not necessarily a consistent one. While his classics such as Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Pale Rider, and A Better World reign supreme within the eyes of his fans, it’s hard to ignore the failure of doomed projects such as Firefox, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, The 15:17 to Paris, and Hereafter. While many would cite his 2011 biopic J. Edgar as a particularly egregious stain on his resume, the misguided examination of one of American history’s most controversial icons certainly presents an interesting, researched guide to the era, complete with some stunning historical detail and a genuinely effective ensemble of performances.

J. Edgar examines J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) life using a nonlinear narrative that hops all over with no clear trajectory. For as little time as Eastwood spent on the set, he likely spent less in the editing room. The film goes back and forth between Hoover’s rise to power beginning in 1919 as he takes down some of the most notorious criminals, gangsters, and outlaws of the era, and establishes the Federal Bureau of Investigation as one of the most powerful bodies in the American government’s infrastructure. He enlists the special agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as his second-in-command, and it’s suggested that their intimate relationship was in fact a romantic and sexual one. An older Hoover recounts his life story in flashback, and contemplates his thoughts on Tolson and the fear-mongering homophobia that he remembers of his mother (Judi Dench).

Eastwood Engages With History in ‘J. Edgar’

Much of the criticism that Eastwood received for J. Edgar was due to the egregiously awkward makeup effects; it’s really hard to take anything in the film seriously when the old Hoover looks like he’s a Johnny Knoxville character. Additionally, the broad generalizations about history, and particularly Eastwood’s decision to treat speculation about Hoover’s sexuality as fact, were criticized heavily. Unsurprisingly, the notoriously conservative filmmaker’s depiction of the FBI, the justice system, and homosexuality were difficult to stomach for a lot of viewers. However, J. Edgar certainly provides an interesting roadmap to history; even if it’s filtered through Eastwood’s strange perspective, it’s never unengaging.

DiCaprio’s performance is only effective when viewed through a very specific context; the film is not a literal depiction of Hoover’s life, but rather the version of his history that he wants to be remembered. Since the film is framed with Hoover narrating his life to a series of journalists with only brief moments shared with an older Tolson, it’s evident that there’s nothing objective about what’s being presented. This helps to explain why the film is so haphazard in how it skims through historical events breezily and combines complex issues and scenarios for simplicity’s sake. It’s not laziness on behalf of Eastwood, but a breakdown of Hoover’s imagined legacy.

Of course, what Hoover’s legacy should be is a controversial point of debate, and one that Eastwood himself seems to be unclear on. Was he a “dogmatic, cruel little man” as Tolson claims, or a victim of an intolerant era that turned him into a self-hating, rebellious nationalist who took it upon himself to “cleanse” the country? Was the FBI a scheme on Hoover’s part to finally have control over something, even if he couldn’t control his own behavior? Is the entire film an extended conspiracy theory, as the film concludes with his assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts

) destroying all of the recorded files so that they can’t be obtained by the Nixon administration? By simply raising these points of debate, Eastwood was able to start a discussion that might have gotten non-history buffs to do a bit of their own research.

Eastwood’s Productions Are Unique

DiCaprio’s performance was deemed to be nothing more than “awards bait” at the time, as it was released just a few years before he finally won the Academy Award for Best Actor with his performance in The Revenant. While DiCaprio’s performance is broad, and a scene where he testifies to the Senate Appropriations Committee feels specifically designed to be an “Oscar clip,” a larger-than-life figure deserves a larger-than-life performance. This is an element that’s consistent among the entire cast, as Dench turns Hoover’s mother into a wicked stepmother from a Disney movie. A scene where she directly tells Hoover that she would rather see him take his own life than reveal his homosexuality is so overtly villainous that it’s borderline parody. Even Hammer’s performance seems almost deliberately creepy, though given everything that’s transpired recently that may not have been the worst creative choice.

Eastwood is renowned for his relaxed demeanor on set, which is relatively refreshing compared to the countless stories about obsessive auteurs like Stanley Kubrick (and those emulating him) that belittle their crew to pay attention to even the most minor detail. The cartoonish nature of the production, and particularly the wacky makeup, has almost become a charming staple of Eastwood’s historical films now; despite the criticism that he received for being impartial and uninterested in accuracy, Eastwood employed similar tactics with the old-age makeup in Jersey Boys, the infamous fake baby in American Sniper, the use of the real subjects in The 15:17 to Paris, and the conspiratorial depiction of the media in Richard Jewell.

Whether it’s Chris Kyle, Richard Jewell, Sully Sullenberger, or Frankie Valli, Eastwood spotlights historical figures who he thinks deserve to have their stories told. Whether he should necessarily be the one to tell them is always going to be up for debate, but Eastwood certainly is able to provoke strong responses from his audiences. There’s nothing worse than a film being forgettable, and none of Eastwood’s films qualify. The fact that he’s been stirring up debate for over 60 years is just remarkable.


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