“If it were all in the script, why make the film?” –Nicholas Ray
Dear Mr. Eastwood,
I’m writing this open letter that you undoubtedly won’t read, because I have a question: why did you make J. Edgar?
Seriously. I don’t know if you’ve ever seen the above quote by Nicholas Ray, a director who worked his ass off to tell stories without too much intrusive camerawork, who seemed content to direct what the studios gave him, but had some beautifully composed shots, brilliant editing and, above all, great performances.
Have you seen any of them, Mr. Eastwood? Rebel Without A Cause, They Live By Night, In A Lonely Place, Bigger Than Life. Maybe it’s hard because, deep down, you know that you’ve never made a movie that can rival even one frame of any of those. Not even close.
I heard you like to keep things simple. That when you worked with Don Siegel, who directed you in Dirty Harry, he told you to set up a good shot, shoot it, and move on. No second takes. I’m not sure if he’s the one who suggested that if you like a script, shoot it word for word and don’t mess with it, but I hear that’s your style.
What I do know is that your movies–and really, Siegel’s movies–sure could stand to use a guy who knew how to compose a nice shot now and then. Dirty Harry sure could use a better script. Every picture you’ve directed, with the exception of Unforgiven, needed someone who knew what they were doing to rework those scripts. Hell, to light a scene in a way that evokes mood.
What gives, Mr. Eastwood? You make it out like you’re one of those hard-thinking conservatives and you just want people to shut up and let us Americans work. That’s strange considering your movies seem so damned lazy.
Mr. Eastwood, what is it that inspired you to make J. Edgar? You’ve got two Oscars and a few other nominations. It can’t be the need for another gold statue.
Do you honestly admire J. Edgar Hoover? If so, I would have loved to see that supposed passion of yours come through: a crazy, lionizing bio-pic that makes this lunatic into a flag-wrapped hero.
See, Oliver Stone used to do that, Mr. Eastwood. I think Stone really believes the Alice in Wonderland style insanity that is JFK. As history, that one’s shameless. As an entertainment, it rivals (but does not exceed) The Manchurian Candidate for pure, black-hearted paranoia. And fun. JFK is damned fun.
You don’t want that, no. So what do you want, Mr. Eastwood? You got Leonardo Di Caprio to play Hoover, and despite the awful makeup, he’s pretty good. You convinced Naomi Watts to play the thankless role of his secretary-for-life, Helen Grandy. I can’t say she’s good, because the part is so poorly written, nothing but sad glances and nods. Then again, watching your movies, I’m starting to think you don’t care whether or not the performances are any good.
How do you get Armie Hammer, so good as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, to phone in such a lousy performance? Did he hurt himself during the shoot? I ask because I was thinking he was on some serious painkillers. He certainly acted that way.
Great character actors help a movie, Mr. Eastwood. With your spaghetti westerns, the producer was on a budget, so he paid you decent money, and then filled the rest of the flick with warm bodies. It’s part of those low-grade films to have hammy actors fill the slots. But you don’t even get hams! Did you bother to pay attention to your Richard Nixon (Christopher Shyer) and Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan)? If I went down to the Acme Comedy Club and asked the last place draw on open-mic night to impersonate Nixon and Kennedy he–or she–would do a better job.
You may think I’m being snarky, but I’m not, Mr. Eastwood. Let’s go down to the club and I’ll show you.
No one else in the movie, not even Judi Dench, is moderately interesting. That’s a crime, because J. Edgar Hoover is an interesting man. Mr. Eastwood: do you care? What is your motivation here?
J. Edgar uses the most hidebound device to tell its story–Hoover dictating his memoirs, not to his secretary (which would make a hell of a lot more sense), but to young, handsome members of the FBI. I didn’t realize the Bureau wanted to send its best and brightest to Washington… to take dictation.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for Milk. Did you see that movie, Mr. Eastwood? Did you think that because he won that award, that you should work with the guy? Did you think that an Oscar meant that you do nothing to his script, even when it creaks and groans like an old chair?
See, I can’t tell if Black wrecked the gay subtext of the movie, or you did. I’m guessing Mr. Black had young men, handsome young men, taking dictation because it might be a way to address Hoover’s repressed homosexuality. How these young men might awaken feelings in him, feelings he must repress, and how that might move him to paranoia, to think there was a threat in every corner of the world, to push people away from him. To be the enigma that is J. Edgar Hoover.
J. Edgar is not a mess, Mr. Eastwood, it’s worse: it is a dull and pointless story that lacks even a fraction of a second of imagination. Nixon, Oliver Stone’s bio-pic, that’s a mess. And it’s a thousand times more entertaining than your forlorn picture.
Imagination, Mr. Eastwood, is hard work. I know you’re a guy who works hard–everyone says it’s so. Why, then, is your J. Edgar the laziest movie I’ve seen in many a year?
Look at this scene: Mother Hoover (Dench) wants J. Edgar to be powerful and “restore the family fortunes” after Dad appears to have gone mad. She also wants her boy to get married. She senses he is gay when he tells her he doesn’t like to dance with women. Mrs. Hoover reminds Edgar of a kid in their neighborhood called “Daffy”–only that’s short for “Daffodil”, because the kid liked to dress in women’s clothes. Well, he was exposed, and then he killed himself.
Mother Hoover agrees with that act. “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffy son,” she says.
The audience gasped audibly at that, so I guess you did one thing right, Mr. Eastwood: namely, hammering the point of your movie home with the grace and subtlety of an Acme brand anvil dropped from an Arizona mesa onto a cartoon coyote.
Did it occur to you to actually light that scene in an interesting way, as opposed to bright lights shining unflatteringly down as if everyone’s standing in a K-Mart? Or not have an endless series of goofy close-ups whenever a scene is ’emotional’? Why do you have such hideous taste in music, Mr. Eastwood? You do know that your audience is capable of feeling emotion without such an awful score?
Do you surround yourself with yes men who tell you how great your musical choices are, how brilliant your shots are, how everything is just peachy? How do they suppress the yawns, Mr. Eastwood? Maybe you don’t know.
Great artists examine the work of their competitors, of their peers, looking to see, probably with a mix of jealousy and admiration, what they are doing right, what they are doing wrong. Do you bother with that, Mr. Eastwood?
Did you bother to wonder why the action in Michael Mann’s Public Enemy works so well? Or the montages in David Fincher’s Zodiac and Social Network are so efficient at showing developing technologies? Surely you’ve seen Milk–didn’t you notice how moving Gus van Sant’s love scenes were?
Mr. Eastwood, do you know to make a montage? I think screenwriter Black intended to show us how Hoover took the FBI into an age of technology, bringing in advanced organizational methods (apparently, he helped created the Library of Congress Catalogue system), thumbprinting techniques, even hiring an experts on wood and handwriting to nail the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapper.
Every one of those scenes is dull, thudding, uninteresting, Mr. Eastwood. Seriously, did you think you could just plunk a camera down, shoot a guy looking at a piece of wood, say a few lines, and move on? Science can be interesting. You certainly don’t seem to think so.
Mr. Eastwood, all this begs the question: why? Why make a movie about one of the 20th Century’s most powerful men, a bizarre man, unique in all American history for his longevity, for his ability to bend presidents and congresses to his will, a man who lived in public but whose private life was kept totally secret, and a man whose internal conflicts over his homosexuality speaks to us today. Why?
I’m angry, Mr. Eastwood, because you’ve ruined it. No one else is going to make a movie about J. Edgar Hoover because you made this one. You took what might be a decent script, certainly an amazing subject, and your–I’ll say it again, laziness?–has turned it into a tedious movie that won’t do anything but waste space in a Redbox in a few months.
Yesterday, Todd Starkweather pointed out in his great examination of Dirty Harry that you played the same role in all your pictures. That’s true, and that’s fine. They were essentially the same characters, after all. Exciting. Interesting. Fun. Not very complex, but enjoyable.
And it’s fine for you to be the same director again and again, shooting plainly and dully a movie filled with blood and explosions and men beating each other up over gold or women or whatever. But when you make Mystic River and ruin it, make a movie of grieving and the afterlife (Hereafter) and ruin it, make a film about a mother who lost her son (Changeling) and ruin it, make another action film (Gran Torino) and nearly ruin it because you can’t be bothered to cut the twenty minutes that were total shit or fix a broken script or realize that half your actors would be dead if their lives depended on their craft, well, then you’re lazy. A movie like J. Edgar, with its epic scope, its amazing characters, and its emotional intensity deserves a director who is passionate enough to direct with care and concern.
And again I have to ask, Mr. Eastwood: Why? Can’t you just leave well enough alone?
A Confused Reviewer