Leonardo DiCaprio, the preeminent actor of the under-40 generation, is stunning in Eastwood’s biopic about the most famous (and important) man in the history of the F.B.I.
DiCaprio of course plays the man himself, J. Edgar Hoover, who we follow from his earliest days at the Bureau until the day he dies. Hoover’s innovations, like bringing fingerprinting and guns to the Bureau, are astonishing from today’s perspective. Armie Hammer inhabits Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifeling colleague and lover. Their brutally constricted relationship is one of the more captivating movie love affairs of recent years.
Eastwood and DiCaprio have created a man who we can appreciate, even respect, all the while maintaining an appropriate level of disgust. Writer Dustin Lance Black and Eastwood want us to see that what he did for the F.B.I. was both amazing and terrible. They succeed. The way DiCaprio plays him, it makes me think vaguely of Gary Oldman as Beethoven in Immortal Beloved. He is the wretched, driven man with genius and grave flaws, loved and hated with equal fervor. The kind of man who makes for a great story.
DiCaprio disappears underneath thick makeup, a gravely, subtle accent and a moderate stoop that all but obliterates the pretty boy from Titanic. Leo is far beyond the other under-40 actors in Hollywood, largely because he has no fear, but even more so because he seems to be insatiably interested in interesting characters.
The historical figures and events that are shown are solidly done and provide the backdrop for the real story, which is Hoover’s struggles with himself, primarily received from a domineering mother and a paralyzing fear of his own homosexuality. What I find most impressive is that when Hoover dies, I do not pity him. But I do not feel that he was a bad man. There was no final judgement rendered in the script or by Eastwood.
Centered around the type of plot device usually riddled with questionable developments, Christopher Nolan’s latest mind-game is a full-blown success. Leonardo DiCaprio is Cobb, the head of a mercenary dream-team (pun intended!) of information thieves, the kind that get into your head while you sleep. Most of the time, Cobb and his team are the best, they know how to break down the safeguards of the mind and “extract” desired information for their employer. But when Japanese business mogul Saito hires them to do the nearly impossible – to plant an idea in someone’s mind, rather than take it (called “inception”) they get into a swirling mess of dreams-within-dreams that nearly kills them all.
Time travel and dream sequences are more often than not the undoing of many a decent adventure picture. Interesting premises go sour when logic falls by the wayside or dreams stray too far from reality. An easy way out is for a writer or director to make up new rules as they go, in order to excuse a digression from the structure of earlier scenes. So all the credit to Nolan for offering up just enough exposition to let us in on how things work, and then not bending his own rules too much.
But plot devices aside, this movie is a slam-bang thriller with plenty of suspense and a bare minimum of throw-away dialogue. DiCaprio brings gravity to the role – and the team – that anchors the scrambling sequences and the racing, detailed plot. The supporting cast is exactly what you want in an adventure picture. Nobody hams it up, nobody gums it up, and almost everyone delivers a measure of charm and individuality without trying to make more of their character than the script allows for. Yet, Ellen Page could stand to take a closer look at some of Helena Bonham-Carter’s work in movies like The Wings of the Dove or Fight Club, inspiration that might give her acting a touch of vitality to replace the youthful know-it-all approach she has so far been using extensively in her short career. Age may be the answer.
I was very happily impressed with Joseph Gordon-Levett, who nearly looks too young to pull off the part but within the first half-hour establishes himself as a sure-footed young man whose action “skills” go from believable to spot-on cool.
The concept of tiers of sleep, and the corresponding changes in time equivalent to real-life time is fascinating and provides brilliantly layered tension in the closing sequences. Essentially, dream-time is slower than real time, so that a few minutes of real time can be an hour in dream time. Go a layer further (a dream-within-a-dream) and time slows down exponentially, and so on. Cobb and his crew get spread out over three levels of dreaming, so that as time is winding down, it does so at a very different pace for each character. It’s a masterful tool for suspense because it allows for immediate drama to occur simultaneously with slower, dialogue-driven scenes.
To get into too much detail would give away key plot points and also be rather dull – the music, pacing and visuals are so expertly achieved that to articulate their impact would be insufficient. Suffice it to say that Inception is so far one of the best films and easily the best adventure movie of 2010.
Sam Mendes was a theater director before he became a film director, and until he directed “Revolutionary Road”, he had largely been able to avoid confusing the two. The script, written by Justin Haythe and based on a novel by Richard Yates, does not help Mendes’ cause, as it attempts to convey all sorts of ideas in convoluted and unrealistic dialogue. Novels can afford to be wordy and descriptive. Films, however, suffer when there is too little to see and too much to hear.
Yet the script is not Mendes’ fault. His errors lie in the tempo of the dialogue, the stagey blocking of the actors and the lack of movement from the camera. There is no imagination, no artfulness, no attempt at cinematic storytelling in the use of the camera. Instead, it acts like a recorder, soaking up what Mendes apparently thinks is a set of performances, dialogue and costumes that is so good it can stand on its own. Yet still his hand can be seen, as he places the actors at noticeably measured distances from each other, often layered as though there is an upstage and downstage, and the cadences of the dialogue vibrate with drama in the least appealing way.
Frank and April Wheeler (played by Leonardo DiCaprio and Kate Winslet) have a seemingly perfect marriage. Frank has a solid job, they own a nice home and have two children. The woman who sold them the house (played by Kathy Bates) is proud to have them there. Yet very quickly we find that all is not well underneath this facade of marital bliss. Frank casually has an affair with an office secretary, and it is not long before April’s manic depressive disorder rears its ugly head.
We are not given quite enough background on either Frank or April. We see a few flashbacks that give us clues as to how they met and fell for each other, but we never get a clear picture of where they are coming from, or why they feel any of the things they feel. All we know is that neither of them have a strong grip on a mature reality; Frank is seemingly treading water, waiting for a miracle to come along and change his life for the better, and April hates her life so much that she creates fantasies, like moving to Paris or having a fling with the neighbor, which she then attempts to live out.
If the intention of the film is to demonstrate how arrogant, mediocre and pathetic the Wheelers are, then it achieves its goal. But this is hardly worth seeing. Two drama queens who think they deserve better than what they have worked for is not interesting. We never see the true love which they are supposedly now losing; they are never admirable enough for us to then be disappointed when they fail; we only see glimpses of their children, so we do not even sympathize with them.
Instead, what we take away from the film is that they were doomed from the beginning. April’s unhappiness is grounded in pipe dreams and clinical depression. Frank’s unhappiness is due to his laziness in finding satisfying work and being totally insensitive to his wife. Where is the real drama? There are plenty of “dramatic” tantrums and confessions and some trashing of furniture, but the decline of their relationship is predictable, uninteresting and regrettably unexplored.
There are two notable “cinematic” moments that work quite well. The first is the morning after an enormous fight, in which both Frank and April had expressed their angry hatred of each other. Come breakfast, April is shockingly docile, friendly and hospitable. She smiles and does not raise her voice. She cooks him his eggs and inquires about work. At first, it is quite a frightening scene: is she so crazy that she has already forgotten the feelings of the night before? But no; a medium closeup shot gives her away. It is a subtle thing, a shift in her face, that betrays the sorrow looming behind the smiles. She is pretending for his sake, in an attempt to make it all (including him) go away. Because Mendes allows Winslet to simply speak and listen (rather than gesticulate or scream or pontificate) we get to see something brilliant, something meaningful.
The other moment comes at the very end. Helen Givings, the woman who sold the Wheelers their house and who fawned over them and was so proud of them, is at home with her husband, who wears a hearing aid. The Wheelers no longer live in the neighborhood, and she has sold the house to a new young couple. “This new couple,” she says, “are the only suitable people I have ever found for that house.” The husband is surprised. “What about the Wheelers?” he asks. “Well”, she says, “They were too neurotic for me, and they let the place fall apart. There are mold spots on the…” and she continues on, listing all of the reasons that the Wheelers weren’t so wonderful after all. The husband grimaces, and he slowly turns down his hearing aid, until her voice fades, fades… and is silent. This moment is not only funny, but a fantastic example of what can be done so easily in the movies, but cannot be done in the theater. It is a closeup, giving us immediate knowledge of who is doing the hearing, and a manipulation of sound, one which allows us to refocus our attention on the actor’s face and his intention. It is a pity that so few of these moments exist in the film.
For all of the absurd dialogue and staginess, Dicaprio, Winslet and Michael Shannon (as the insane John Givings) give excellent performances, perhaps even more impressive because of the low quality of material they have to work with. Roger Deakins does an excellent job with the cinematography, though his work is restricted almost completely to lighting rooms with little concern for camera movement.