J.Edgar

Cert: TBA Runtime: 137 mins Director: Clint Eastwood Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench

What’s important at this time is to re-clarify the difference between hero and villain

J.Edgar Hoover was one of the biggest power houses in American history. We delve into the personal life of one of the most powerful and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. We are shown pieces of a man who was scared, confused, and extremely intelligent. He knew how to cater to the media, but his personal life was shrouded in secrecy. It could be argued that J. Edgar himself wasn’t quite sure of who he was.Clint Eastwood has been preparing J.Edagr for some time, but with the amazing writer that is Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black on board we had a strong and amazing story to share. I have been fortunate enough to watch J.Edgar before its release in January 2012.Told largely in flashbacks that span the first indications in 1919 of a Bolshevik revolution threatening America, to 1972, when Hoover died, J. EDGAR stars Leonardo DiCaprio in a mesmerizing performance as the tough-as-nails FBI man who prided himself of getting rid of the rotten elements in American society, and ordering his bureau and his agents to live up to his professional standards of loyalty and patriotism. Both Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black depict the great things Hoover’s FBI did, but they don’t whitewash the fact that he was also a shameless, unapologetic huckster and salesman at boosting the FBI image at home and abroad, sometimes taking credit for certain big FBI catches (capturing the killer of Charles Lindbergh’s baby; the killing of Dillinger) that he was never even present at—and, of course, the fact that his relationship with his close aid Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) was, how shall we say, more than merely professional. Eastwood, more content now to be behind the camera than in front of it, gets a great performance out of DiCaprio, as well as solid turns by Naomi Watts (as Hoover’s long-time secretary Helen Gundy), Dame Judi Dench (as his mother Annie), and Jessica Hecht as the notorious subversive Emma Goldman, most of them unrecognizable, including DiCaprio, under all the prosthetics and make-up, but still able to deliver the goods.

Though J. Edgar is worth watching simply to see DiCaprio’s tour-de-force performance, it has its other virtues. The aforementioned Armie Hammer shines as the demure but relentlessly honest and devoted Tolson, a complete removal from his breakout role as the self-entitled Winkelvoss twins in last year’s The Social Network. His chemistry with DiCaprio is restrained yet undeniable, conveyed largely by minute gestures and exchanged looks. Most historians have dismissed the idea that Hoover was gay, but regardless of its validity or historical accuracy, the two actors make it feel utterly believable and real in context. The movie is never more compelling than when they share the screen.As Hoover’s secretary and one-time girlfriend Helen Grady, Naomi Watts does an admirable job of conveying her character’s constant struggle to remain loyal despite the increasingly morally questionable tasks her boss assigns her, even if we never quite understand why. She makes the most of limited screen time and a part that, on paper, is rather flat. The rest of the supporting cast, which also includes Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother, is solid but uninteresting, with the exception of Jeffery Donovan, whose cringe-worthy portrayal of Robert Kennedy sticks out like a sore thumb.Aside from the acting, perhaps the most interesting element of J. Edgar is the narrative structure. Instead of following a conventional, chronological timeline, Eastwood uses the present, which, in this case, is actually the 1960s and involves Hoover dictating his personal thoughts and memories to an FBI agent who will apparently compile them into a book, as a framing device for flashbacks to various moments throughout Hoover’s career and life. Though this constant jumping between different time periods makes the initial fifteen minutes or so feel disjointed, a confusion heightened by the lack of the usual subtitles to indicate time and/or place, it also makes the film feel less like a traditional, note-by-note account of Hoover’s life and more like they are getting glimpses of his memories, as though they are remembering along with him. It becomes less like a biopic and more like a character study along the lines of Citizen Kane, concerned not with the particular events themselves so much as the man behind them and how he was affected by them. This provides the audience with an intimate and detailed portrait of Hoover, but it has the downfall of shortchanging some of the other individuals in the story; because everything is told through Hoover’s eyes, our entire perception of these characters is based on what he knows about them and what he thinks of them. Though, as previously mentioned, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts bring some much-needed depth to their respective roles, their characters, and several others, are not nearly as well-developed as Hoover, and their motivations are not always completely clear.

One also wonders why Eastwood included flashback scenes that do not involve the central protagonist; not only do these moments, which mostly relate to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, violate the movie’s general narrative approach, but they feel simply unnecessary, failing to add anything important to the plot or characters that could not have been revealed in a different way.Still, despite these and other flaws, including an ending that could have used some minor trimming, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a capable, engrossing portrayal of one of the most intriguing figures of the 20th century. The period sets and costumes are noteworthy, bringing to life five decades of American history, but like the sparsely albeit effectively used score, never draw unnecessary attention to themselves. There is much to admire here, but it is Leonardo DiCaprio’s riveting performance, along with the support of an equally talented, bright-eyed Armie Hammer, that truly pulls you in.Oscars are calling me thinks.8.0/10

 

 

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