J. Edgar

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Perhaps my favorite thing about Clint Eastwood’s films is that they’re difficult to market.  Million Dollar Baby caused an ingrate-uproar when Maggie Fitzgerald turned out not to be a mirror image of Rocky.  Invictus was part political drama and part sports movie, and all I think of when I remember the film is my father inviting me to watch it with him, claiming “This is a pretty good movie” (a shining compliment from my father).  Hereafter had Matt Damon, beautiful women, and sci-fi elements, but Matt Damon didn’t fight anyone, there was no sex, and no aliens.  The American public can’t handle this.  In 2011, from the man who once acted in movies seemingly created for the sole purpose of marketing, comes J. Edgar, another biopic, this time concerning the life and career of the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

The role of J. Edgar Hoover himself is played subtly and professionally by Leonardo DiCaprio, who will have every right to stop biting his tongue during the Best Actor ceremony in February if he doesn’t receive a nomination.  Filling out the leading cast are Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s Assistant Director and lifelong companion, and Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary of fifty-four years (by 1972).  The three actors deliver performances which shed the novelty of watching a period piece and uncover the core of the story (characters/people) immediately.  Rounding out the cast is Judi Dench as Hoover’s beloved mother, with whom he lives until her death.  Where this could have been an incriminating piece on a well-disliked man, Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black make Hoover a sympathetic character from the outset, such that we question his principles and methods while simultaneously rooting for him in his personal life and many of his career exploits, particularly his rivalry with Richard Nixon, perhaps the only American president who will never get a sympathetic portrayal.  Even George W. Bush got one (not that he should have, but there you go).

The film’s principal line of tension is Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, not only as an assistant but as a romantic companion.  As a great many scenes take place within the realm of Hoover’s private life, there is plenty of fiction/speculation/embellishment here, but the story as portrayed by Eastwood/Black is so tender that no matter how much genuine information is available concerning Hoover’s sexuality, most viewers will hope this was pretty close to how it was.

In addition to this story, we get Hoover’s public life and his (somewhat sinister) handling of the “Crime of the Century.”  To prove the worth of his FBI, Hoover must track down the kidnapper of Charles Lindberg’s (Josh Lucas) child, which as we know, turned out to be Bruno Hauptmann (portrayed here by Damon Herriman).  These sections of the film involve more of the “period” side of things, showcasing movie theatres, early television ads, cereal boxes, and even a brief gunfight between gangsters and cops.  On the few occasions where we see blood, it appears stark, bright, and shocking on the heavily graded background, which renders the film almost black-and-white and gives it a timeless appearance.

I’m not so sure about Eastwood’s decision to cast Jeffrey Donovan as Robert F. Kennedy.  Donovan’s performance, albeit brief, comes off as more of a cartoony impression than anything else, and the fact that DiCaprio is wearing “old” makeup during these scenes doesn’t help the situation (the makeup is actually well done, but we consciously know what DiCaprio actually looks like, which makes our minds do funny things with these scenes).  Donovan is a competent actor, but there’s a reason he’s headlining a show on USA and not Hollywood films.

I’ve heard the film’s narrative referred to as being “disjointed,” and to these folks, I say the same thing I say to the “hard to follow” people and the “too boring/long” people: read a book.  Stop throwing words like “disjointed” out there when you have little knowledge of what a “jointed” narrative looks like.  Would you call a short story collection disjointed because there are page breaks between the stories?

Finally, Eastwood’s portrayal of Hoover strives to humanize its title figure, yet doesn’t change the fact that he did the things he did.  Still, making him this sympathetic while sticking to so much historical accuracy proves (if it hadn’t already been proved) what a master filmmaker Eastwood is.  He doesn’t try to make you like what Hoover did, and these scenes are presented in an objective enough way that no particular viewpoint is forced upon the viewer.  As Eastwood once said, “I’ve gone around in movies blowing people away with a .44 magnum. But that doesn’t mean I think that’s a proper thing to do”.

J.Edgar (2011); written by Dustin Lance Black; directed by Clint Eastwood; starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts.


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