J. Edgar: Film Review

J. Edgar Film Still Desk - H 2011
Warner Bros.

J. Edgar Film Still Desk - H 2011

A surprising collaboration that tackles its trickiest challenges with plausibility and good sense, while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its controversial subject's behavior, public and private.

Written by Dustin Lance Black, the Warner Bros. film features Armie Hammer, Judi Dench and Naomi Watts as the historic FBI Boss' closest companions.

Arcing across a tumultuous half-century of American history while conjuring intimate glimpses of a high-profile public figure who hid his own secrets as well as he collected those of others, J. Edgar is a mightily ambitious work that provokes a host of assorted reactions: Simultaneous fascination and revulsion for the autocratic longtime head of the FBI, pity for someone so incapable of coming to terms with his true nature, grudging respect for his professional skills outweighed by disdain for his tactics and prejudices, admiration for how deftly the filmmakers have treated the conjectural aspects of the most intimate scenes and impatience with the script's tendency to tell rather than show.

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This surprising collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles its trickiest challenges with plausibility and good sense, while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its controversial subject's behavior, public and private. Big-name talent behind and in front of the camera, led by a committed performance by Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, assures extensive media attention and public curiosity up to a point. But Warner Bros.' faces a significant commercial challenge in stirring the interest of younger audiences likely to regard J. Edgar Hoover as an irrelevant artifact of the bad old days or, most reductively, a hypocritical closet case.

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These days, agenda counts for so much to so many, and the pressing, if not only, point of interest for some constituencies will be to see how far the film goes in ascribing all manner of nefarious and/or hypocritical behavior to this most public symbol of moral rectitude, patriotic thinking and law abidance; for some, nothing short of an unrestrained evisceration will do. But pulling Hoover's pants down and sticking him on a skewer 39 years after his death would not be Eastwood's way. Rather, to this complex drama he applies the same sort of measured intelligence he has brought to bear on any number of his films to assess and analyze the unjust application of justice, the suitable response to violence or its threat and the temptation for an individual to flaunt the rules and either take the law into one's own hands or bend it to suit one's own purposes. Eastwood has often gravitated toward characters inclined to extreme unilateral behavior and Hoover's ability to run the FBI has his personal fiefdom for nearly half a century indisputably qualifies him as a prime example of such a figure.

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Unfortunately, Hoover led a life so narrow and unchanging, both emotionally and ideologically, as to prevent screenwriter Black from making him a character available to dramatic revelation. His stature notwithstanding, Hoover can't even be considered an alluringly complicated anti-hero along the lines of Charles Foster Kane, to reference a film with which J. Edgar shares some unmissable structural, historical and tempermental parallels. A bulldog who more closely resembled a pug, Hoover can be credited with many innovations in law enforcement. But he was also a vengeful, suspicious, racist egomaniac, a man who kept his grip on power by getting the goods on anyone, especially presidents, who might try to bring him down.

He was also a fastidious, self-righteous public tough guy who lived with his mother until she died and may or may not have been intimately involved with his longtime partner and professional second-in-command, Clyde Tolson, portrayed here in excellent, if rather glamorized fashion, by Armie Hammer. The truth about the domestic relationship is probably forever unknowable, but the way the homoerotic undertones and impulses are handled is one of the best things about the film; the emotional dynamics, given all the social and political factors at play, feel entirely credible, and the DiCaprio and Hammer excel during the exchanges of innuendo, covert desire, recriminations and mutual understanding.

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Built around a core of the old Hoover dictating a memoir to a series of noticeably good-looking, well-groomed young men, the script hopscotches throughout history to focus on key episodes in the man's life that either significantly shaped his world view or played a role in the development of the FBI: Post-World War I radical violence that forged his anti-communism and his lifelong obsession with domestic threats; the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and murder case, which he used to strengthen the bureau and sharply extend its reach; his self-glorifying efforts to put himself in the front line battling famous Depression-era gangsters, and his determination to obtain trump cards on perceived adversaries such as FDR, JFK and Martin Luther King Jr. in the form of incriminating sexual documents and recordings.

Layered through the historical pageant is a personal life notable for its self-repression and timidity. A mama's boy whose mother (Judi Dench) comes off like a rancid version of a controlling Tennessee Williams matriarch, the young Hoover is once seen taking the attractive Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) on a weird date in the Library of Congress, where he shows off his advanced cataloguing skills. When his romantic advances are rebuffed, he recoups by offering her a job as his personal secretary, a highly confidential position she crucially maintains until after his death, when she (as shown here) shreds her boss's private files before Nixon's goons arrive to seize them.

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Other than an affair Hoover claims with actress Dorothy Lamour, there are no other known women. But there was Clyde Tolson, an undistinguished but, at least as represented by Hammer, very tall and handsome candidate for an agency job who quickly becomes the boss's regular dinner partner and number two man. Sharing a hotel suite for the races at Del Mar powerfully brings their relationship to the brink, after which they reach an understanding. The upshot is that very few people are as famous for the sex they probably didn't have as other people are for the sex they actually did have.

As drama, J. Edgar gets off to a bit of a choppy start as it rapidly introduces a host of names and characters it's hard to keep track of while bouncing from 1919 to the 1960s and back again, with Hoover's voiceover attempting to clarify what's going on. DiCaprio's changing looks across the decades also takes some getting used to; while his old-age makeup seems jarring at first, one gradually looks beyond it, and the actor is actually most effective in the middle and late-age scenes. Hoover's manner of speaking is unusual in itself; it's carefully enunciated with an aggressive drive and no identifiable regional affiliation, evidently all carefully cultivated to compensate for early stuttering. He also has dark, soulless mahogany eyes and a chunky body some praise as “solid.”

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DiCaprio projects this odd authority figure with energetic earnestness, a strong grip on the man's mindset and purpose, and an attentiveness to Hoover's power to prevail over others in matters big and small. It's a vigorous, capable performance, one that carries the film and breathes new life into the old tradition of plain real folk achieving retroactive allure by being played by attractive stars. But the characterization remains external, one of solid technique blocked from going deep because Hoover remains a fixed figure closed to taking a personal journey.

Hammer plays Tolson as a bland fashion-plate who enjoys raising an eyebrow and making the occasional suggestive comment; in less constrained circumstances, Hammer slyly implies, this could have been one fun guy. Watts has little opportunity to express much beyond dogged loyalty and Dench is similarly limited in her portrait of a severe mother hen. A host of actors come and go impersonating, with various levels of credibility, such famous figures as Charles Lindbergh, Emma Goldman, Mitchell Palmer, Robert Kennedy, Bruno Hauptmann, Richard Nixon (the only president depicted) and Ginger and Lela Rogers.

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The various time periods are well represented in James J. Murakami's production design and Deborah Hopper's costumes, while cinematographer Tom Stern has elegantly desaturated the visuals in predominantly blue tones. Once again, Eastwood has composed his own score, but this time out his spare and restrained piano backing feels insufficient to the task at hand, as the picture could have been helpfully propelled by a vigorous, full-bodied, old-school Hollywood score.