18 Days of Paranoia #3: The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover (dir by Larry Cohen)


The 1977 film, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, opens in 1972.

J. Edgar Hoover, the much-feared and long-serving director of the FBI, has just been found dead at his home and it seems like the entire city of Washington, D.C. is scrambling.  Not only are people jockeying for Hoover’s job but they’re also wondering what might be found in his secret files.  As quickly becomes apparent, Hoover had a file on everyone.  While Presidents lauded him and the press portrayed him as hero, Hoover spent nearly 50 years building up a surveillance state.  Hoover said it was to fight criminals and subversives but mostly, it was just to hold onto his own power.  Even President Nixon is heard, in the Oval Office, ordering his men to get those files.

Hoover may have known everyone’s secrets but, the film suggests, very few people knew his.  The film is narrated by a former FBI agent named Dwight Webb (Rip Torn).  Dwight talks about how he was kicked out of the FBI because it was discovered that he not only smoked but that he was having an adulterous affair with a secretary.  “You know how Hoover was about that sex stuff,” he says, his tone suggesting that there’s more to the story than just Hoover being a bit of a puritan.

We flash back to the 1920s.  We see a young Hoover (James Wainwright) as a part of the infamous Palmer Raids, an early effort by the Justice Department to track down and deport communist subversives.  Though Hoover disagrees with the legality of the Palmer Raids, he still plays his part and that loyalty is enough to eventually get him appointed, at the age of 29, to be the head of the agency that would eventually become the FBI.  Hoover may start out as a relatively idealistic man but it doesn’t take long for the fame and the power to go to his head.

Hoover (now played by Broderick Crawford) serves a number of Presidents, each one worse the one who proceeded him.  Franklin Delano Roosevelt (Howard Da Silva) is an avuncular despot while the Kennedy brothers (William Jordan as John and Michael Parks as Bobby) are two rich brats who think that they can control Hoover but who soon discover that Hoover is far more clever than they realize.  Hoover finds himself a man out-of-place in the 60s and the 70s,  Suddenly, he’s no longer everyone’s hero and people are starting to view the FBI as being not a force for law enforcement but instead an instrument of oppression.

Through it all, Hoover remains an enigma.  He demands a lot of from his agents but he resents them if they’re too successful.  Melvin Purvis (Michael Sacks) might find fame for leading the manhunt that took down Dillinger but he’s driven to suicide by Hoover’s cruel treatment.  Unlike Clint Eastwood’s film about Hoover, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover suggests that Hoover was not gay but that instead, that he was so repressed that he was essentially asexual.  When one woman throws herself at him, he accuses her of being a subversive and demands to know how anyone could find him attractive.  He’s closest to his mother and when she dies, he shuts off his emotions.  His own power, for better and worse, becomes the one thing that he loves.  He’s married to the FBI and he often behaves like an abusive spouse.

The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover is an interesting film.  It’s an attempt to do a huge American epic on a less than epic budget.  At the start of the film, the low budget is undeniably distracting.  The 1920s are essentially represented by a back lot and two old cars.  The scenes of the FBI dealing with gangsters like Dillinger and Creepy Karpis feel awkward and slapdash.  But, as the film’s timeline gets closer to what was then the modern era, the film’s story tightens up and so does Larry Cohen’s direction.  (One get the feeling that Cohen was, perhaps understandably, more interested in the Hoover of the 60s and the 70s than the Hoover of the 20s and 30s.  There’s a sharpness to the second half of the movie that is just missing from the first half.)  Broderick Crawford gives a chilling performance as a man who is determined to hold onto his power, just for the sake of having it.  The scenes were Hoover and Bobby Kennedy snap at each other have a charge that’s missing from the first half of the film.  Michael Parks does a great job portraying RFK as basically being a spoiled jerk while Crawford seems to relish the chance to play up the resentful, bitter old man aspects of Hoover’s personality.  The film ultimately suggests that whether the audience previously admired RFK or whether they previously admired Hoover, they were all essentially duped.

Though the film never quite overcomes the limits of its low budget, it works well as a secret history of the United States.  In 1977, it undoubtedly took guts to make a film that portrayed Roosevelt and Kennedy as being as bad as Nixon and Johnson.  (It would probably even take guts today.  One need only rewatch something like The Butler or Hyde Park on Hudson to see the ludicrous lengths Hollywood will go to idealize presidents like Kennedy and dictators like FDR.)  While this film certainly doesn’t defend J. Edgar Hoover’s excesses, it often suggests that the president he served under were just as bad, if not even worse.  In the end, it becomes a portrait of not only how power corrupts but also why things don’t change, regardless of who is nominally in charge.  In the end the film’s villain is not J. Edgar Hoover.  Instead, the film’s villain is the system that created and then enabled him.  The man may be dead but the system remains.

Previous entries in the 18 Days of Paranoia:

  1. The Flight That Disappeared
  2. The Humanity Bureau

 

In Memory of Robin Williams #4: Good Will Hunting (dir by Gus Van Sant)


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After being nominated three times, Robin Williams finally won an Oscar for his performance as Dr. Sean McGuire in 1997’s Good Will Hunting.  The first time I ever watched Good Will Hunting, I was 16 years old and I loved it.  12 years later, I rewatched it for this review and, oddly enough, I did not love it.  In fact, I barely even liked it.  However, one thing that I did better appreciate the second time around was the performance of Robin Williams.

Good Will Hunting was, of course, written by its two stars, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck.  It tells the story of Will Hunting (Matt Damon), a self-taught math genius who, as a result of being abused as a child, is full of anger and refuses to allow anyone to get close to him.  His only true friend is Chuckie Sullivan (Ben Affleck), a construction worker.  Will works as a janitor at MIT and, when he’s caught secretly solving a complex math problem, he’s taken under the wing of Prof. Gerard Lambeau (Stellan Skarsgard).  While Will pursues a volatile romance with a med student named Skylar (Minnie Driver, who is good in an underwritten role), Lambeau arranges for Will to become a patient of psychologist Sean McGuire (Robin Williams).  The recently widowed Sean helps Will to come to terms with his abusive childhood and deal with his anger issues.  When Skylar tells Will that she’s moving to California, Will is forced to decide whether to follow her or to just push her away like he does with everyone else.

I can still remember that the first time I ever saw Good Will Hunting, I had such a crush on Will Hunting.  After all, he looked like Matt Damon.  He was smart but he could still stand up for himself.  He was a jerk but that was just because he needed the right girl in his life.  When he finally talked about being abused by his foster father, my heart broke for him and I just wanted to be there for him while he cried.  When he drove off to see Skylar in that beat-up car of his, I thought it was such a romantic moment.  Like, seriously — Oh.  My.  God.

That was the first time I saw the movie.

However, when I recently rewatched the film for this review, I had a totally different reaction to Will Hunting.  Maybe it’s because I’m older now and I’ve had to do deal with real-life versions of the character but this time, I actually found myself very much not charmed by Will Hunting and his condescending verbosity.  Whereas originally it seemed like he pushed the away the world as a defensive mechanism, it now seemed like Will was basically just a sociopath.  People in both the audience and the movie assumed that, because he was so smart, there had to be something more to Will than just bitter negativity but actually, there was less.  And even Will’s intelligence seemed to be more the result of the fact that director Gus Van Sant and screenwriters Damon and Affleck were kind enough to surround Will with less-than-articulate characters to humiliate.  It’s easy to be the smartest person in the room when you’re surrounded by strawmen.  I got the feeling that we were supposed to impressed because Will cites Howard Zinn at one point but, really, Howard Zinn is pretty much the historian of choice for phony intellectuals everywhere.

(In the interest of fairness, I guess I should admit that I may be biased because I once dated a phony intellectual who was always citing Howard Zinn, despite having not read anything that Zinn had ever written.  Don’t get me wrong.  He owned a copy of A People’s History of the United States and he always made sure it was sitting somewhere where visitors could see it but he had never actually opened it.  I imagine he has since moved on to Thomas Piketty.)

Instead, I found myself reacting far more positively to the character of Chuckie Sullivan.  Chuckie may not have been a genius but at least he was capable of holding down a job, actually cared about his friends, and was capable of communicating with people without trying to destroy their self-esteem.  If I had been Skylar, I would have dumped Will and spent my last few months in Boston enjoying the working class pleasures of Chuckie Sullivan.

But here’s the thing — the main reason that we believe, despite all evidence to the contrary, that there is good inside of Will Hunting is because Sean Maguire tells us that there is.  As I rewatched Good Will Hunting, I was surprised by just how good Robin Williams’s performance really was.  The compassionate psychologist has become such a stock character that there’s something truly enjoyable about watching an actor manage to find nuance and individuality in the familiar role.   Sean is such a kind and likable character (and Robin Williams gives such an empathetic performance) that we’re willing to give Will the benefit of the doubt as long as he is.  In Good Will Hunting, Robin Williams once again had the beard that gave him gravitas in Awakenings.  But he also had the saddest eyes.  It’s the eyes that you remember as you watch the film because it’s those eyes that tell us that Sean has had to overcome the type of pain that Will Hunting will never be capable of understanding.

It’s those eyes, more than anything, that convince us that there might be some good in Will Hunting.

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44 Days of Paranoia #30: Nixon (dir by Oliver Stone)


For our latest entry in the 44 Days of Paranoia, we take a look at Oliver Stone’s 1995 presidential biopic, Nixon.

Nixon tells the life story of our 37th President, Richard Nixon.  The only President to ever resign in order to avoid being impeached, Nixon remains a controversial figure to this day.  As portrayed in this film, Nixon (played by Anthony Hopkins) was an insecure, friendless child who was dominated by his ultra religious mother (Mary Steenburgen) and who lived in the shadow of his charismatic older brother (Tony Goldwyn).  After he graduated college, Nixon married Pat (Joan Allen), entered politics, made a name for himself as an anti-communist, and eventually ended up winning the U.S. presidency.  The film tells us that, regardless of his success, Nixon remained a paranoid and desperately lonely man who eventually allowed the sycophants on his staff (including James Woods) to break the law in an attempt to destroy enemies both real and imagined.  Along the way, Nixon deals with a shady businessman (Larry Hagman), who expects to be rewarded for supporting Nixon’s political career, and has an odd confrontation with a young anti-war protester who has figured out that Nixon doesn’t have half the power that everyone assumes he does.

Considering that his last few films have been W., Wall Street: Money Never Sleeps, and SavagesI think it’s understandable that I’m often stunned to discover that, at one point in the distant past, Oliver Stone actually was a worthwhile director.  JFK, for instance, is effective propaganda.  Nixon, which feels a lot like an unofficial sequel to JFK, is a much messier film than JFK but — as opposed to something like Savages — it’s still watchable and occasionally even thought-provoking.  Thanks to Hopkins’ performance and, it must be admitted, Stone’s surprisingly even-handed approach to the character, Nixon challenges our assumptions about one of the most infamous and villified figures in American history.  It forces us to decide for ourselves whether Nixon was a monster or a victim of circumstances that spiraled out of his control.  If you need proof of the effectiveness of the film’s approach, just compare Stone’s work on Nixon with his work on his next Presidential biography, the far less effective W.

(I should admit, however, that I’m a political history nerd and therefore, this film was specifically designed to appeal to me.  For me, half the fun of Nixon was being able to go, “Oh, that’s supposed to be Nelson Rockefeller!”)

If I had to compare the experience of watching Nixon to anything, I would compare it to taking 10 capsules of Dexedrine and then staying up for five days straight without eating.  The film zooms from scene-to-scene, switching film stocks almost at random while jumping in and out of time, and not worrying too much about establishing any sort of narrative consistency.  Surprisingly nuanced domestic scenes between Anthony Hopkins and Joan Allen are followed by over-the-top scenes where Bob Hoskins lustily stares at a White House guard or Sam Waterston’s eyes briefly turn completely black as he discusses the existence of evil.  When Nixon gives his acceptance speech to the Republican Convention, the Republican delegates are briefly replaced by images of a world on fire.  Familiar actors wander through the film, most of them only popping up for a scene or two and then vanishing.  The end result is a film that both engages and exhausts the viewer, a hallucinatory journey through Stone’s version of American history.

Nixon is a mess but it’s a fascinating mess.

Other Entries In The 44 Days of Paranoia 

  1. Clonus
  2. Executive Action
  3. Winter Kills
  4. Interview With The Assassin
  5. The Trial of Lee Harvey Oswald
  6. JFK
  7. Beyond The Doors
  8. Three Days of the Condor
  9. They Saved Hitler’s Brain
  10. The Intruder
  11. Police, Adjective
  12. Burn After Reading
  13. Quiz Show
  14. Flying Blind
  15. God Told Me To
  16. Wag the Dog
  17. Cheaters
  18. Scream and Scream Again
  19. Capricorn One
  20. Seven Days In May
  21. Broken City
  22. Suddenly
  23. Pickup on South Street
  24. The Informer
  25. Chinatown
  26. Compliance
  27. The Lives of Others
  28. The Departed
  29. A Face In The Crowd