J. Edgar (2011)
Release Date: November 11th, 2011 MPAA Rating: R
Director: Clint Eastwood Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan, Ed Westwick
t’s debatable whether or not J. Edgar Hoover’s life is deserving of an epic biopic, or even if his private life secrecy and historical adventures leading to his legacy are worthy moviemaking material. What is not in question is Clint Eastwood’s directing capabilities and Leonardo DiCaprio’s acting chops. Both are nearly flawless. Writer Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) also delivers a sharp script, which magically keeps a two-hour film from dulling or dragging and cinematographer Tom Stern utilizes techniques that demonstrate an attractive, nearly black-and-white style. And while the subdued nature of Edgar’s sexuality, bigotry, highly sought public eminence, and corruption/extortion occasionally clashes with what many audiences might hope to see examined, it’s still an exquisitely made piece.
In 1919, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) conducted his raiding of Bolshevik communists and anarchists, aided by a young John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who experienced a quick rise through the ranks to become head of the anti-radical division of the primitive Bureau of Investigation. By 1924, Hoover became the acting director, slowly building the unit’s power, authority, jurisdiction, scientific aptitude, and overall crime-fighting effectiveness. Federal laws, counter-intelligence, fingerprinting, and centralized information gathering allowed the FBI (officially formed in 1935) more respect and veneration. His involvement with the gangster wars and bank robbers of the 1930s, the public’s eventual admiration and recognition of the FBI as heroes, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the Great Depression, and Kennedy assassination are all touched upon – but just as many details are excluded as included.
In his unequaled dedication to the bureau, J. Edgar’s personal life suffers – in this film, his homosexuality, friendlessness, illegal surveillance collections, and blackmail attempts are confirmed, as his controversial private dealings are dissected. Each of these contentions is handled with delicacy, preventing any single aspect from overwhelming the whole of his career. Eastwood clearly isn’t seeking out shocks. The masterful performances are what stand out the most, with strong supporting roles by Armie Hammer as forbidden love interest Clyde Tolson, Naomi Watts as faithful secretary Helen Gandy, and Judi Dench as his proud yet restrictive mother Annie.
One of the more interesting angles to Hoover’s life is that his impact on history isn’t so notorious that it’s common knowledge (despite at one time being revered as the most powerful man in the world). This film sheds light on the formation, progression and evolvement of the FBI, its battles with governmental opposition, and Hoover’s suspected accumulation of secrets and confidential files concerning prominent political leaders. It serves as educational more often than electrifying, although the truths and revelations are cursory at best. Ironically, this tasteful approach to a tumultuous existence may be the film’s greatest criticism. And since the movie spans several decades, extensive makeup effects are used to age each of the primary characters (seamlessly edited time shifts are frequent and unnecessary); while this element will probably garner Academy Award attention, the extremeness is hard to take seriously. Seeing DiCaprio as a hunched, wrinkled, fatter elder is far more distracting than convincing (this goes twofold for Hammer in his later years, who resembles Pruneface from “Dick Tracy”).
– Mike Massie