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Friday, July 27, 2012

Voiceover in J. Edgar

Of all the reviews I have read about this movie, none, nil, zip, nada made any mention of the use of Hoover's voiceover in the movie. Curious, isn't it? Is it because I've lived in China or I've had a brief encounter with bureaucrats that I picked up on this ironic device in this movie?

The first clue is the narrative frame, structured as Hoover dictating his memoir to a young underling. One has to regard the voiceover as an aging and outdated bureaucrat desperate to preserve his legacy. The voiceover brackets certain segments of the flashback as his "official memory." Because these segments are mixed with demostic scenes that are NOT bracketed by his voiceover. The distinction is critical and subtle. In fact, Eastwood is so careful not to push the point (afraid of it?) that it ends up flying under the consciousness of every movie reviewer I have read. Geez, I hope I am not the only person to have picked up on this --- the voiceover segments are associated with all the claims of Hoover's own achievements, the absolute necessity for the bureau's power to fight communists and anarchists in the 1920s and of gangsters in the 1930s, his prophetic "discovery" of scientific methods, his Sherlock Holmesian detection of the Lindberg case, his bravery and courage and extraordinary greatness ... Oh yes, he was the Cassandra that sacrificed for and saved the motherland, but was unjustly rejected by the ungrateful people and politicians. He alone stood between America's survival and destruction.

Hidden but not completely excised, I suspect the irony might have been oozing out of the screenplay but was largely scrubbed out by the cautious director. Still, it is there, kind of. For example, Hoover's claim of the imminent danger of communism in 1960s is juxtaposed with his claim of the same danger (mark the voiceover) in the 1920s. Obviously he was paranoid and self-serving in the 1960s, drumming up fear and extorting more power for himself from that fear. Are we to believe that his retrospective claim about the 1920s were completely truthful? This juxtaposition might explain the logic underlying the fractured segments between the present (1970s) and the past (flashbacks) and between the official and domestic sides of Hoover's life.

Yes, that is what I am saying. The way voiceover is used in J. Edgar may be similar to the way voiceover is used in The Usual Suspects. At least in the portions subtly marked with the voiceover, Hoover is no more trustworthy than Keyser Soze.

So why was Eastwood so cautious, so afraid to let the irony show, so ... paranoid? Is he afraid that  the movie would draw the ire of right-wing mouthpieces and moviegoers who still worship Hoover as their hero? Like Hoover and his humanity, the movie hides its nature so well that the intent is lost in the shuffle.

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