J. Edgar

J. Edgar ★★★★

"Empatia J. Edgaria kohtaan saattaa tuntua liioittelulta, koska hänen nimensä on niin tiukasti sidoksissa FBI:n olemukseen. Mutta empatian kannalta keskeistä on, että Eastwood näyttää katsojalle, miten J. Edgar antaa kaiken pois, miten hän uhraa itsensä FBI:lle ja valtiolle, joka ei kunnioita häntä. Hän ei ymmärrä uhrauksiaan, koska kuvittelee, että instituutio on yhtä kuin hän. Instituution siivellä hän koettaa nousta ihmisyytensä (ja sen mitä uskoo heikkoudekseen) yläpuolelle."

Kirjoittelin Eastwoodin aliarvostetusta merkkiteoksesta blogin puolelle: elokuvablogielsur.wordpress.com/2022/08/09/yksilo-instituutiona-clint-eastwoodin-j-edgar-2011/

Up next, some thoughts in English. These are somewhat unpolished compared to the Finnish blog text because these were the original thoughts before I translated, expanded, and specified them. Not contradictory though, at least I hope... Then again, if you still read my LB stuff, you are probably used to hastiness and some half-baked thoughts. But never stop the ideas, let them fly. Anyway:

J. Edgar might be the absolute worst of Eastwood's male protagonists whose masculinity destroys everything in their way. Here masculinity isn't just a concern to the immediate people around J. Edgar but the creation of the FBI is linked in the film's context to the character's ego so strongly that it comes to embody all his flaws. J. Edgar creates the FBI to exorcise his own demons and to channel his anger at the world.

People love to throw around the "conservative" stamp on Eastwood but his libertarian politics do clarify his films in the sense that they are extremely critical of institutions while often being empathetic towards individuals. The synthesis isn’t always successful but it’s often very fascinating in its ambivalence and contradictions, making Eastwood an endlessly debatable filmmaker. That probably explains why people get very angry at him: they see how questionable characters are given empathy which makes them forget all that institutional/social criticism. That's obviously not always the point, you could use White Hunter, Black Heart, or Unforgiven as counter-points to this argument but I feel like it explains certain parts of his work.

But "empathy" is not to be mixed with acceptance or forgiveness. In White Hunter, Black Heart, you really can't see empathy towards its director character's obsessions but in Unforgiven the empathy becomes apparent even though there is no redemption. Jump to A Perfect World and the pro-individual/anti-institution argument starts making better sense*. Society and its institutions are always tougher and more brutal than an individual. When society looks at them so coldly, the filmmaker cannot make the same mistakes. Filmmakers must be a little more understanding than anyone else or they can’t make films about human beings. After all, these forgotten individuals are loved by someone, someone thought they were worthy of love. Perhaps we should look at them through those eyes for a while?

How about J. Edgar then? When the man is the institution? The film follows in similar footsteps as other Eastwood's work: the protagonist is destroyed. Not only that but humiliated and left without redemption. The institution wins over an individual once again because it succeeds an individual. The individual spends his whole life trying to build an institution, sacrifices everything for it, and is left without anything. No recognition for his work nor true love to hold his hand. Isn't that kind of ultimate libertarian argument against the state? In the end, there is nothing J. Edgar can call his own because he has given it all away. There is one moment when he seems to understand his sacrifices when he stands in front of a mirror wearing his mother's dress after she has passed away. His mother didn't really love him, she always saw something else in him. Could this be a moment for redemption? But he chooses to continue as his mother saw him, perhaps because he both loved and feared her more than anyone else.

The key is Clyde, the eyes that look J. Edgar through love. He walks by Edgar but is much more resilient in the sense that he is unwilling to give everything to the FBI like J. Edgar tries to do. By (surprisingly) focusing on the relationship between these two men, Eastwood finds his empathy link to J. Edgar. We experience him as an individual whose true failures become even bigger on the level of his personal drama but similarly, he becomes more understandable as a human being. He is afraid to love Clyde except through the FBI because he is afraid that Clyde's rejection could be like that of his mother's. Those who can’t really love, love the big, uncontrollable things.

It's very simple: empathy is granting J. Edgar his humanity. It doesn't redeem him nor does it negate the sharp institutional criticism. It separates him from the FBI but also makes it visible that he obsessively needs the FBI not to face his own humanity: the flaws that do not fit the profile of a great man. Empathy reveals his true face, not the one behind the FBI. Eastwood's thesis could be formed in this kind of way: a man isn't an institution. If he errs to think so, it is cinema’s duty to remind him of his humanity.

*or from the newer films: Sully where the determination of a captain played by Tom Hanks saves people and makes him answer for it in front of the bureaucrats. There could be even an argument to be made that even in highly divisive American Sniper, Chris Kyle was the least evil of the evils when compared to the destructive military-industrial complex that enabled his murderous rampages against Iraqi civilians.