“We must never forget our history,” growls aging anti-Communist lion J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) near the end of “J. Edgar.” “We must never lower our guard.” Here, Janus-like in their fusion and opposition, lay the film’s two faces: To narrate the past and hopefully to redeem it.
When “J. Edgar,” now available on DVD, Blu-ray, and VOD, arrived in theaters in November, it was frequently described as a “Clint Eastwood film,” and it is, in the sense that he directed it. But on watching it with “Milk” (Gus Van Sant, 2008), I saw more of the hand of screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who in both cases crafts stories as much about the act of making and writing history as about the public figures at their hearts. “J. Edgar” and “Milk” each take history to be a process of revision rather than a set of “facts,” and I mean that as a compliment. It’s just another narrative we dress real life in to create coherence out of the chaos.
“J. Edgar” is easily the weaker film, as portly and long-winded as its protagonist, bustling with fine actors in underwritten roles. And even though I found the love between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (a winning Armie Hammer) convincing, I don’t understand why the filmmakers felt it necessary to explain it away. In particular, the implicit tie between Hoover’s suppressed homosexuality, fierce conservatism, and overweening mother (Judi Dench) is as old-fashioned as it is over-simplified. It’s been more than 50 years since Hitchcock made the same sort of suggestion with Norman Bates.
Yet “J. Edgar” deserves more credit for acknowledging how history comes to be told, even if it springs its own trap. It’s a Russian doll set of flashbacks, we remembering Hoover remembering himself remembering himself: at one point, in mere minutes, the film moves from Hoover narrating his start at the Bureau of Investigation to Hoover working with A. Mitchell Palmer in the 1919 anti-Communist Palmer raids to Hoover as a child, being told by Mommie Dearest that he’s destined for greatness.
One of the men transcribing notes for Hoover’s memoir catches him misremembering, or perhaps purposely rewriting, the past. “But Emma Goldman was a citizen” becomes, like a glimpse of archival footage of Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech, a kind of message from history as it happened. It’s a wake-up call that defending the past may require us to forget it, to smooth out the inconsistencies in favor of something easier to swallow.
Where “J. Edgar” is at root a portrait of a man — a private portrait of a public life — “Milk” feels a lot more like history in the making, frenetic, messy, with no direct upward line of progress. Covering only eight years in the life of transformative gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, the film has a certain sprightliness built into it. Opening with archival footage of men in gay bars being arrested during police raids, the story is told by Milk (a luminous, note-perfect Sean Penn), who is making a recording describing his life, to be played on the event of his assassination.
The affinities with “J. Edgar” are almost too many to be named. To take one example, the suggestion that Milk’s conservative adversary and eventual assassin Dan White drew his rage from being in the closet called to mind an image of Hoover listening, almost envious, to a tape recording of one of King’s sexual indiscretions. From repression, both films suggest, is conservatism born.
But “J. Edgar” shows language used to paper over the past, and perpetrates that trick itself; in “Milk,” the language of history can be revelatory and complex. Harvey tells Dan that he prefers “gay” to “queer,” but will use the word himself offhandedly; against the hatefulness of Anita Bryant’s tirades against “perverts” and “pedophiles,” we get the counternarrative of “tough dykes” and “queens” fighting discrimination. Milk’s famous slogan, “I’m here to recruit you!” openly combats the discriminatory rhetoric that accused gays of “recruiting” children to their ranks.
“Milk” is not a flawless film, but in this impeccably smart use of language, Lance Black provides a striking reminder of how movies can change the narrative. The film’s deficits are dispelled by the memorial march following Milk’s murder, a thousand points of light that never fail to make me cry. It’s because the scene is intercut with actual footage from that night, grainy shots from above showing a stream of candles moving slowly forward. Sometimes, when art imitates life, it gets things just right.