Mark Reviews Movies

J. Edgar


2 Stars (out of 4)

Director: Clint Eastwood

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan

MPAA Rating: R (for brief strong language)

Running Time: 2:17

Release Date: 11/9/11 (limited); 11/11/11 (wide)

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Review by Mark Dujsik | November 8, 2011

Either screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood are playing a wickedly subversive game with their version of J. Edgar Hoover, presenting a man obsessed with leaving behind a unmistakably heroic legacy only to pull the rug out from under his lifetime attempts with a climactic series of events that show him to be exactly the petty liar of a man his critics accuse him of being, or the pair have little idea what they want to say about a man whose entire life is a contradiction. Given how often J. Edgar strays from examining the titular character to focus on the oftentimes vague events surrounding him, it's safer to assume the latter option. It's not so much a matter of missing the mark as it is not bothering to aim for one.

A third possibility is a dissonance in intent between the writer and director. Black's screenplay views history as an extended rumor, which is not a fault unto itself. Our estimation of history, after all, is frequently peppered with conjecture, and the movie's more sensationalistic elements—that Eleanor Roosevelt was engaged in a love affair with a female reporter, that John F. Kennedy engaged in a sexual relationship with an East German communist spy, and that Hoover himself had a connection to a fellow executive at the FBI that was more than professional—provide some energy to the otherwise languid narrative. That Eastwood plays the scandals and speculation with utter solemnity only serves to undermine their tabloid feel.

The narrative takes a flashback structure, as Hoover, played by Leonardo DiCaprio from the ages of 24 to his death at 77 (The makeup is quite effective, especially for the caricature DiCaprio performs), dictates his memories of working in the Department of Justice. Though technically under the authority of the Attorney General, Hoover really works for no man except himself.

At the time the movie opens, he is butting heads with Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who wants his Director of the FBI to investigate organized crime, which Hoover has publicly stated does not exist. Hoover's plans are and have always been to rigorously go after political enemies of the United States—a passion he developed after witnessing a string of bombings in Washington, D.C., organized by foreign communist radicals.

The Hoover of Black's imagination is a resentful, power-hungry bureaucrat who struts into the Oval Office under eight Presidents, who assume they have the clout to reign him in, and essentially blackmails them, using his bag of tricks of a collection of secret files on various people of influence, kept by his faithful assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). With these, he coerces many powerful people into allowing him to do whatever he wants. Nixon (Christopher Shyer) is the only one who scares him, convinced the man is even more cutthroat than himself.

The political tug of war, though crude, is entertaining in a gossipy sort of way. The rest of the movie covers Hoover's personal relationships and his career. The latter parts involve how he goes from one of the more hated men in America while hunting down the celebrity bank robbers of the Great Depression to turning the tide of public opinion by turning his G-Men into stars of movies, radio, and comic books (James Cagney shifts from headlining The Public Enemy to starring in G Men). Hoover appears before Congress a few times, denying breaking his Bureau's rules (It's always "his" Bureau) of becoming involved in the entertainment industry (He immediately demands that his agents track down damning evidence against the Senator who calls him out) and insisting that the FBI be given more sweeping authority after Charles Lindbergh's (Josh Lucas) baby boy is kidnapped.

This is Hoover's anthology of his own work, twisted to make himself out to be a far more nobler and active hero in his own life and throughout the history of the FBI (When an agent asks whether his tome is meant to be about himself or the Bureau, Hoover insists the two are inseparable), and the question—presented here as unanswerable—is whether Hoover is being intentionally misleading or if he actually has grown to believe his own lies. The same goes for his personal life, which is awash with confusion, particularly in regards to his bond to his associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

The two hold regular lunches and dinner, go on vacation together, and, as the years pass, start to resemble a married couple (save for the cohabitation and romantic consummation). Hoover's reluctance to act on his obvious feelings stems from his mother (Judi Dench), who devastates her son with the news that she would rather he be dead than be a "daffodil."

The pieces of an informative biography—one that dances with a controversial reading of history that suits its subject—are present in J. Edgar, and Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern (a frequent collaborator) certainly deliver a strikingly gray and faded, almost monochromatic, palette that evokes the period and unfulfilled life of its central character. If only Black or Eastwood had an idea of purpose or a definite statement about Hoover (The movie offers ample opportunities), those parts could have made a cohesive whole.

Copyright © 2011 by Mark Dujsik. All rights reserved.

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