Friday, January 30, 2015

The Worst Men or the Best? 4 Films

J. Edgar.  I was surprised how excellent this was. It was  skipped for the awards and the reviews weren't all that good. In general, I've discovered that Leonardo DiCaprio gets trashed a lot as an actor. I can only assume it is because he has so much going for him.

"J. Edgar" is thus the consummate biography as filmed by Clint Eastwood from a marvelous screenplay. It is as good as any of his best work. DiCaprio plays the title role magnificently. Arnie Hammer plays his number two at the bureau wonderfully as well. I can't imagine what else anyone could want in a biography of this man.

Eastwood does not hit us over the head with some of the present day allegations about Hoover. He presents them in the film and lets you draw your own conclusions. So as to his being gay and a cross dresser, that is quite likely. However, we don't get bogged down with this lurid material. The best part of the movie may be the deep and abiding love between Hoover and Colson, his number two man at the FBI.

Most of the film is spent with J. Edgar building the FBI from the ground up. He also was almost solely responsible for bringing forensic science into the FBI. Everyone thought he was a nut talking about fingerprints and such in the early 1900s. We also discover that Hoover used the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to force Congress into giving the FBI much broader jurisdiction over cases. This enabled it to take control of a case instead of the police. We also see him with his infamous files on prominent people, which enables him to stay at the helm until his death.

J. Edgar's hatred of the Kennedys is handled with lovely understatement. When JFK is shot in Dallas, Hoover gets the call immediately from Dallas. He then calls RFK and simply tells him his brother has been shot and hangs up the phone.

W.  This is a complex portrait of the shaping of a man and a president over many years. I won't go as far as to say I am now sympathetic to Bush but I understand him and his choices better now. First, I was surprised to see how poorly W fit within the Bush family. It was clear that everything W did was less than his father or grandfather or brother Jeb or any other Bush had done. He couldn't fail to miss this as his parents told him this constantly. 

What Bush senior failed to see though was that W could get in touch with the common man yet hold onto the elitist ones with some very conflicting personality traits. He became a born again Christian as a way of coping with his substance abuse problems. Somehow he managed to blend being born again with being a guy who had been to all the right schools, joined all the right clubs and gravitated to all the right people for his time in history. His parents were repelled by some of his choice. His being born again set up their Episcopalian backs plus his use of the death penalty repeatedly as governor of Texas was not something they'd want sitting in their own personal biographies. Clearly, Phi Beta Kappa Jeb who behaved like a true Yale man was more the Bush son they liked to embrace. Yet the very way W talks in his down home voice, loves baseball and follows it religiously, is a guy anyone would "like to share a beer with" and is the life of the party at any frat party or down home barbeque. These personality traits serve W very, very well with the voters. He is not off putting like the rest of the elitist Bushes. W seems to genuinely love his country and wants to restore it to bigness. He goes about this more like a guy who owns a baseball team than a President, which is actually what he did for a living and what he loved doing. Thus, by the end of the movie when he is in the outfield with his mitt, eternally ready to catch that long baseball hit, the look on his face is one of total bewilderment. He is also entirely alone out in the outfield. This is W by the end of his presidency in a nutshell. Actually, W's underlings come off a lot worse than he does in this film. Right at the top of the heap of awfulness is Richard Dreyfus playing Cheney.

Josh Brolin does a heck of a job as W. He has become an incredibly fine actor and I am looking forward to each and every performance of his. I liked this movie the first time but I thought it was terrific the second time. Oliver Stone rarely disappoints as a film director. A lot of people detest him but they fail to view him solely as a film director, rather than as an obnoxious personality in real life. He shoots himself in the foot every time he opens his mouth off set and would do himself a big favor if he stopped giving interviews. 

Reversal of Fortune. Sunny von Bülow died finally after 28 years in a nursing home. She never emerged from her coma. Her husband Clause was charged with her attempted murder. He supposedly did it by injecting her with insulin. Clause knew he needed first rate legal help and ended up with Alan Dershowitz turning things around for him. Interesting as the law is in this film, the characters of Sunny and Clause are even better.

Sunny von Bülow is a hard woman to like. Glen Close's depiction doesn't make that task any easier. Ironically, Sunny in a coma isn't all that different from Sunny in regular life. Basically, Sunny took up space. She was neurotic, spoiled, used to getting her own way and never did anything worthwhile. If she hadn't been rich, no one would have noticed her. She spent a great deal of time asleep--actually, a huge amount of time asleep. And when she was awake, she was more like still half asleep. I think she could easily be described as someone who was sleepwalking through her life.

Which doesn't excuse Clause if he did try to kill her but it presents an interesting dichotomy. For Clause von Bülow is potentially very likable and Jeremy Irons captures that perfectly. He is self deprecating, humorous, a wonderful raconteur. People love dining out with Clause if for no other reason than they feel better because he is such a wit and so much fun. Clause is even very witty with Dershowitz, which takes some doing when you are battling attempted murder charges. He can be totally deadpan which makes him even funnier. Dershowitz is played beautifully by the late Ron Silver.

Jeremy Irons won the Oscar deservedly for this role. Another marvelous aspect to his performance is that you are never sure if he did try to murder her or not. And despite not being sure, you'd still go out to dinner with him because he's such an interesting guy. This is faithful to the real guy too as the media reports that to this day people still clamor to have Clause at their parties and to meet him for dinner.

The Right Stuff. This is a film which compares and contrasts two different types of American heroes. One is the test pilot type for the armed forces. No greater test pilot existed than Chuck Yeager and Sam Shepard does a wonderful job playing him. Barbara Hershey as his wife is also excellent. The test pilots died at a fairly high rate too. This was extremely high risk work. A huge factor in whether you emerged alive was how good your split second timing was. Yeager's was the best. These guys had tremendous individual control over their destiny. It was entirely up to them whether they emerged alive at the end of the day.

The second group is the NASA astronauts, who all came out of the test pilot grouping of the armed forces. We are used to thinking of them as huge heroes. But as one sees them preparing for their orbits, the lack of control they had is stunning to behold. They were micromanaged on every level. They were an enormous PR effort so had to do as much posing work as a Hollywood starlet. Plus the control over their ship was scarcely theirs. They had to put up a huge fight just to get a window. If the test pilots were rugged individualists, almost carved out of the Old West, these guys got the full Mad Men treatment of being primarily developed as a hot commodity. The frustration of being at everyone's beck and call 24/7 must have been enormous. Yet they hung in there because the enormity of being the first in space was too much to ever turn down. I really liked the way the two stories played off one another. It is based on Tom Wolfe's excellent book.

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