Review: J. Edgar
PLOT: The life of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who reigned supreme as the head of the FBI for forty years. The film examines his formative years, spent chasing communist saboteurs, gangsters, and the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby, as well as his close relationship with his aide Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
REVIEW: Clint Eastwood really is the ideal choice to bring the Hoover saga to the big-screen. A deeply divisive figure, to some Hoover was a hero, to others he was the devil incarnate. At eighty-one, Eastwood's been around long enough to have a better understanding than most of the conflicts the FBI found itself embroiled in over Hoover's reign, and he's able to deliver a remarkably even-handed big-screen biography.
To be sure, Hoover was a profoundly flawed man, and his numerous character flaws are thoroughly explored here, by a surprisingly uncanny DiCaprio. Despite their numerous physical differences, specifically that DiCaprio's much taller, leaner, and better looking than the toad-like Hoover, DiCaprio seems to capture the essence of a man who justified his lust for power by imagining that he had to protect the public from what he deemed to be threats.
The chief threat, as laid out here, is the communist party, specifically it's presence in America. It's explained that Hoover's battle against what was once a significant threat (that saw the home of his immediate supervisor being bombed in retaliation for investigations) tainted his later views of anyone who didn't fit his idea of proper politics.
What makes Hoover truly villainous, and leads to his downfall, is his stunningly wrong-headed persecution of Martin Luther King, Jr., with him bugging King's hotel rooms in the hope of catching him in extra-marital affairs, tapping his phones, and trying to infiltrate the civil rights movement. In Eastwood's interpretation of Hoover's career, this is the most despicable aspect of Hoover, although another of Hoover's bad moments, specifically his endorsement of the HUAC communist witch-hunt hearings, is ignored, save for one quick mention. Hoover's secret files, where he archived incriminating evidence that, according to the film, included everything from JFK's extra-marital affairs, to lesbian dalliances by Eleanor Roosevelt, are also explored, as is his decades long relationship with his secretary Helen Gandy (played by a reserved Naomi Watts) who, after Hoover's demise, kept the files from falling into the hands of the Nixon administration (which is presented here as more villainous than Hoover himself).
Nevertheless, Eastwood and DiCaprio try to make Hoover something more than just a heavy. As we see at many points in the film, the man had some brilliant ideas, including using fingerprints and marked bills to capture criminals. Of course, being a Hoover biopic, a good chunk of the film is devoted to his relationship with his longtime companion Clyde Tolson, as played by THE SOCIAL NETWORK's Armie Hammer.
It's long been speculated that the two were lovers, and here, it's suggested that yes, Hoover and Tolson were in love, but that Hoover was too much of a coward to ever fully commit to a full-on relationship. Indeed, Hoover's own mother, played by a cruel Judi Dench, tells him she'd rather he was dead that "a daffodil." Here, it's the relationship with Tolson that humanizes the machine-like Hoover, and whatever emotion the film contains comes from two powerful moments, where Tolson confronts Hoover about the feelings he's trying to hide.
For his part, Hammer is quite good as Tolson, but it must be said that his old-age make-up is horrendous. He barely looks human as the aged Tolson, which is hard to understand, as the old-age make-up on DiCaprio and Watts is excellent.
I suspect J. EDGAR is going to divide audiences somewhat, and while I really liked it, I have my doubts audiences will warm to it too much. I'm an easy sell for a movie like this, as I've been a true-crime buff for years, and I knew a lot about the various Hoover cases going into the film. If you don't happen to know much about Hoover, the film can be very confusing, and academic. It's certainly more in line with Eastwood's recent, more reserved work like HEREAFTER, and FLAG OF OUR FATHERS than the powerful CHANGELING, or MILLION DOLLAR BABY. The design of the film is minimalist, with it being short on action, and long on scenes of people talking in dimly lit offices (with the color palette being so washed out at times the film almost seems black & white, which is nevertheless suitable to the period). Eastwood's piano score is also very low-key and minimalist, although it kicks in a bit more towards the end, and quite beautifully accompanies Hammer's final scene as Tolson.
Whether or not you'll enjoy J. EDGAR really depends on what you're hoping to get out of this. One thing this is not is a fast-paced crime epic, nor is it a particularly dishy biopic. Rather, it's a measured, thoughtful biography of an extremely complicated, divisive figure. The acting is mostly superb, and the storytelling is elegant, if somewhat deliberate. For a history buff like me, it was 140 minutes well spent. Hopefully others will feel the same.
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|Extra Tidbit:||For another, far less measured take on Hoover, see Oliver Stone's NIXON. Here, Hoover is presented as a force of pure evil. As for his relationship with Tolson, in one scene the two are portrayed as sitting poolside in pink nighties, chasing cabana boys. Somehow, I think Eastwood's version is probably closer to reality.|