J. Edgar (United States, 2011)

November 09, 2011
A movie review by James Berardinelli
J. Edgar Poster

Who knew the life story of J. Edgar Hoover could be so arid? Actually, that's unfair, but there are stretches of J. Edgar when the proceedings seem to drag. Counterbalancing the occasional bursts of tedium, however, are a tremendous lead performance, impeccable period detail, the fascinating use of an "unreliable narrator," and some individually compelling scenes. As a whole, however, there's something lacking here. The movie is watchable but not mesmerizing. Part of the problem is that, putting aside the fragmented and out-of-order chronology (accomplished using flashbacks and flashbacks-within-flashbacks), J. Edgar is a very ordinary bio-pic about an extraordinary individual. And, although Hoover generated a variety of passionate responses from individuals throughout the 20th century, there's nothing in this movie that provokes much in the way of an emotional connection with or against him. J. Edgar is a workmanlike production that should garner an Oscar nomination for Leonardo DiCaprio, but it's not a great motion picture or even an especially memorable one.

J. Edgar chronicles the life of the first FBI director from his time toiling in the field during the Hoover administration to his final year crossing swords with Richard Nixon. Hoover's early days, including his relentless attacks on "Communist radicals", his hunting down of Prohibition era outlaws, and his investigation of the Lindbergh baby's kidnapping, are detailed via flashbacks as he tells his story to an official biographer. The "present" time line encapsulates the ten-year period from 1962 to 1972, with Hoover using his "secret files" to blackmail the Kennedys then pursuing a vendetta against Martin Luther King.

Director Clint Eastwood, working from a script by Milk's Dustin Lance Black, does not shy away from issues surrounding Hoover's sexuality, although the character is presented more as asexual than homosexual. His relationship with close companion and deputy director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is offered as the chaste byproduct of a man who's frightened by intimacy. The two have deep feelings for one another but Hoover is so deep in the closet that he cannot act upon them. The words of his mother (Judi Dench), a religious homophobe, haunt him. She at one time states she would rather have a dead child than one who grows up to be gay. Posthumous innuendoes about Hoover being a cross-dresser are addressed obliquely. The approach embraced by the filmmakers mixes established facts with gossip and rumor to fashion an ambiguous portrait of the individual viewed by many as being the most powerful man in America during the post-World War II era.

DiCaprio wears the persona of Hoover with ease, again reminding audiences that the young man who made so many girls swoon with Titanic has grown into an actor of great range and capability. His portrayal here eclipses that of his Howard Hughes interpretation in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator and equals or exceeds his best screen work to-date. He wears the subpar old age makeup believably, although it is at times a distraction. DiCaprio passes the acid test for any bio-pic as we lose our sense of the performer and the performance and see only the historical individual he is embodying.

Aside from DiCaprio and Hammer, who is effective as Hoover's friend-slash-possible lover, the only actor with substantive screen time is Naomi Watts, who has the thankless job of portraying Hoover's faithful secretary, Helen Gandy. Watts appears frequently throughout the movie, but doesn't have a lot to do. Several well-known actors have appearances in small roles - Judi Dench as Hoover's mother, Dermot Mulroney as a New Jersey cop, Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh, and Lea Thompson as Ginger Rogers' mom.

Aside from DiCaprio's performance, the most remarkable aspect of J. Edgar is the period design. With de-saturated colors making things appear almost black-and-white, the 1920s and 1930s feel like the 1920s and 1930s. Recently, Eastwood has been drawn to period pictures and history-based accounts, and J. Edgar fits into both categories. If Eastwood can be said to have a style, however, this lies outside of it. His movies are often overlong (as is the case here), but there's a low-key tranquility to the way J. Edgar develops that is unlike anything the venerable director has recently accomplished. This man was once Dirty Harry?

Dramatically, the film finds its groove when illustrating the lengths to which Hoover goes to amass power and enhance public perceptions of him and the FBI. His speeches in front of Congress are remarkable pieces of oratorical skill. His use of blackmail on persons of influence (including presidents) leads to one scene in which he jousts with Robert Kennedy (the then-Attorney General for JFK). In moments like this, we see the black hat and the white steed: the man who loves his country but is willing to flout its laws for what he perceives to be "the good of the people."

What J. Edgar lacks is drive. It is at times too staid and straightforward. It skims along the surface rather than delving beneath the roiling waters of Hoover's personality to provide a more potent glimpse of the man. Hoover is as much an enigma at the end of the movie as he is at the beginning. In many ways, this is a text book account of his life in that it provides a competent biography without adding much in the way of color or passion. There is a clever conceit in the way we learn that how Hoover views himself (and perhaps how history sees him) is not necessarily reflective of how things were. Nevertheless, the narrative's length and periods of low energy make it a challenge and better suited for those with a particular interest in Hoover, his times, or his legacy.

J. Edgar (United States, 2011)

Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench
Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black
Cinematography: Tom Stern
U.S. Distributor: Warner Brothers
Run Time: 2:15
U.S. Release Date: 2011-11-11
MPAA Rating: "R" (Profanity)
Genre: DRAMA
Subtitles: none
Theatrical Aspect Ratio: 2.35:1