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Clint Eastwood and The Politics of “J. Edgar”

ReelPolitik By Anthony Kaufman | ReelPolitik November 7, 2011 at 11:50AM

The big news over the weekend in awards circles was the unveiling of Clint Eastwood’s latest Academy contender “J. Edgar.” Unlike many of my peers, I greet the arrival of a new Eastwood pic like the latest Tea Party rally—an event with a lot of emotion and conservative politics, but not a lot of substance. Eastwood’s films are certainly better than Paul Haggis’s—who, of course, wrote Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”—but they share the same penchant for melodrama, broad strokes and a political shorthand and reactionary quality that seems to think itself moral and upstanding by having token Others and spouting lessons, usually involving the comeuppance of angry white people, who turn out to be not that bad, after all.
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The big news over the weekend in awards circles was the unveiling of Clint Eastwood’s latest Academy contender “J. Edgar.” Unlike many of my peers, I greet the arrival of a new Eastwood pic like the latest Tea Party rally—an event with a lot of emotion and conservative politics, but not a lot of substance. Eastwood’s films are certainly better than Paul Haggis’s—who, of course, wrote Eastwood’s “Million Dollar Baby”—but they share the same penchant for melodrama, broad strokes and a political shorthand and reactionary quality that seems to think itself moral and upstanding by having token Others and spouting lessons, usually involving the comeuppance of angry white people, who turn out to be not that bad, after all.

It all sounds a lot like “J. Edgar,” with Leonardo DiCaprio playing the ignominious F.B.I. director, who embodied all that was wrong with the Nixon era, the American police state, and was probably responsible for the murder of Black Panthers Fred Hampton and Mark Clark. But you probably don’t get that in “J. Edgar.” What you get is just one more Hollywood-ized “complex” portrait of a misunderstood man of power.

When I read reviews that suggest at moments the audience is meant to feel “genuine pity for Hoover”, as this ABC news report shows, and even shed tears for the character, I gag. Not only because Eastwood has produced a movie that is meant to show us some sort of painful inner side to this man, who I’m perfectly happy loathing, thank you very much, but because of Eastwood’s trademark sentimentality—the same jingoistic flag-waving, tear-jerking we saw in “Iwo Jima” and “Flags of Our Fathers,” etc.

[Update:] Okay, to be fair, as commenter notes below, "Flags" attempts to levy its flag-waving jingoism with some sincere efforts to show the costs of war, and the government's propaganda machine, but I still contend it's a token effort that upholds conservative values: Man, Soldier and Nation.

I’m sorry if I don’t trust Eastwood in “Brokeback Mountain” mode, showing the unrequited love between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (even if it was written by “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black). Eastwood was better at shooting bad guys, not trying to redeem them.

This article is related to: Anti-Hollywood