Review: J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar


Clint Eastwood
Dustin Lance Black
137 min.
Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas
MPAA Rating
R for brief strong language

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Most politicians are easily forgotten unless they make a vital impression on the public. A handful of governors and senators have this type of familiarity (unless they became president). It’s rare for a non-public political figure, especially one in such a quiet position as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations to stand out on his own merits and flaws and become a public figure on a magnitude often reserved only for Hollywood superstars. J. Edgar Hoover is one such figure.

Portrayed with a talented actor’s attention to detail, Leonardo DiCaprio gives new life to a political lightning rod who has become more the butt of jokes than the central driving force to the building and establishing the FBI as one of the most powerful national entities that has ever existed. Director Clint Eastwood, never one to shy away from controversial subjects, tackles the man who was more anti-Communist than Senator Joseph McCarthy who Hoover at one point calls an “opportunist”.

His personal files on potential threats to his tenure as head of the FBI and to the nation itself, two institutions he felt were interlocked in destiny, are the stuff of legend. No one knows for certain what these files contained, though a few have leaked out as part of other files made public. His increased surveillance of normal Americans he suspected of having Communist ties or even to political leaders leary of his influence (Roosevelt, Kennedy and Nixon for example) suggest he would fit right in to modern politics.

While the film details his rise to power and his obsessive attention to detail which helped improve the capabilities of and reach of the FBI, it’s the intimate details that draw the audience into this morally complex character. His mother (Judi Dench), a devout Catholic, has a tight grip on her boy even after her death. Her influence drives him to success, yet jeopardizes his happiness as it nearly destroyes the secret relationship he has built with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). With Tolson, Hoover finds his center, strives to become a better man, yet his personal failings and his maternal influence color his rational decision making. This delicate balance of power in Hoover’s life both build and destroy this central American historical figure.

J. Edgar suffers from some of the common problems of the biopic. Focusing so heavily on the details of the subject’s life, the filmmaker tends to drag out the events to such a frustrating degree that making it through the film feels like a chore. Eastwood’s film meanders through seven decades of events while juggling the past, present and intermediate past.

Much of this disjointed nature can be attributed to Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay. Having written the compelling Milk, it’s clear Black has the talent to draw honest and relatable characters while displaying them as products of their environment. The historical figures portrayed in his two scripts are strong and complex, yet what Milk delivered in terms of emotional resonance, the confined space in which the film takes place makes it easier to get to the heart of the character. Here, we learn over a lengthy span of time what could have been conveyed in short order, focus drawn away from the Lindberg kidnapping trial or, more specifically, tightened around it.

Although DiCaprio is the lynchpin to the film’s successes, it’s his enduring romantic involvement with Hammer’s Tolson that defines the film. The tender connection between the two men, hidden behind public words and private displays of affection, is due in part to Hammer’s masterful command of subtle reactions. Aside from a brief explosion of emotional energy near the end of the film, Tolson is a soft-spoken, limelight-deflecting gentleman gifted with all the aspects which Hoover lacks: grace, charm, beauty. In his way, Hammer knows how to complete the Hoover character with a simple glance or touch. His inflection when demanding that he and Hoover never miss a meal together conveys paragraphs of meaning through an utterly minute detail. While DiCaprio should be considered for an Oscar nomination for his performance here, Hammer would be most deserving of not only a nomination, but an Oscar.

J. Edgar founders under its lugubrious pace and shifting loyalties, focusing too little on the elements that work and drawing the narrative too thin. Eastwood’s films are often elegaic, but here he let’s his film take far too long to get where it needs to be and without rewarding stylistic flourishes to drive it along. Its merits exist solely on the back of its cast, a strong one at that.
Review Written
November 18, 2011

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