J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar (2011) – Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Dustin Lance Black, and J. Edgar Hoover: this seems like a combination that can’t go wrong. Clint Eastwood has been a gifted film-maker wince the 1970s but in the past decade he has hit a stride that makes him one of the more interesting elder statesmen of the film industry working today. With many of your classic 1970s directors, they’re still doing damn fine work but there’s no question their best days are in the past. With Eastwood, there’s the feeling like his best work could still be upcoming. If you list his best films, recent efforts like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima, and Gran Torino come readily to mind (though 1992’s Unforgiven remains my favorite). Leonardo DiCaprio is an actor who just seems to keep getting better with every passing year. Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for another biopic, Milk. Most importantly, John Edgar Hoover is one of the fascinating characters of the 20th century. With a pedigree like that how can the movie fail?

It doesn’t fail. Then again it doesn’t reach quite the heights you’d expect from it either. Mostly it is a fascinating character study with an appropriately well-realize performance from its star. Black’s script isn’t so much a beginning-middle-end traditional narrative (though it does have the obvious ending of any biopic centered around a deceased person). Hoover moves through history and the film views that history through the prism of its protagonist. We see the way the Bureau forms in the wake of the anarchist terrorism of the late 1910s. We see the kidnapping of the son of aviator Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) as it relates to the Bureau. The John F. Kennedy assassination takes up about a minute of screen time, just enough to show you that Hoover was the one who broke the news to then-Attorney General Robert Kennedy. This is Hoover’s American history.

Of course there’s also the personal aspect of it. There are longtime rumors, officially unsubstantiated, that J. Edgar Hoover was engaged in a long-term homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The movie agrees that these were two men in love but seems to argue that it never went all the way to the physical level (despite both men wanting to). That kind of self-denial sort of epitomizes the film’s characterization of Hoover. He’s a man who has an idea of how things ought to be and sets about trying to make them that way. Judi Dench gives an intimidating performance as Hoover’s overbearing mother who in one scene mentions a young gay man who shot himself, and expresses the opinion that he did the right thing. So THAT’S what Hoover has to deal with in his head. Naomie Watts is kind of wasted in a role as Hoover’s longtime secretary. She really doesn’t do much. Reliable character actors like Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Stephen Root, Ed Westwick, and Dennis O’Hare fill out a lot of the supporting cast.

J. Edgar is a movie that doesn’t condemn a man who has already received massive amounts of condemnation. For a man who valued his privacy so much, Hoover sure as shit violated the hell out of a lot of other people’s. I still think my favorite filmic characterization of Hoover was Bob Hoskins in Oliver Stone’s Nixon. (My least favorite would be Billy Crudup in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, who seemed to think Hoover was Walter Winchell.) Actually I’d be really curious to see Stone’s take on Hoover. Stone has always valued story over historical accuracy, as a STORYTELLER should. Eastwood’s film feels a bit aimless at times. All in all, I wish it had been somewhat better, but I enjoyed it as a thought-provoking character study.

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