Reviewer: Jeffrey M. Anderson
Ratings (out of five): ****
Clint Eastwood more or less established the modern-day biopic formula back with Bird (1988), though it was not a formula back then; the proof is that the movie only received one Oscar nomination, for its sound design. Two years ago, Eastwood revisited the biopic genre with the interesting, if not entirely successful Invictus; if anything, that movie simply bit off more than it could chew. Now Eastwood is back with a third biopic, J. Edgar (also on Blu-Ray), and given the first two, there was no reason for high hopes.
However, thanks to a smart script by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote Gus Van Sant's Milk (2008), and Eastwood's typically understated direction, J. Edgar turns out to be a fascinating portrait, not so much of a man, but of the way that man tried to manipulate his own legacy.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, by some counts the most famous man of the 20th century, the man who helped found -- and became the first director of -- the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Aside from this he was probably gay, and perhaps tried on women's clothing at some point. He apparently also had a domineering mother (Judi Dench) and worked hard to overcome a stutter. To some he was a hero, and to others he was a monster, seeing communists everywhere. He was capable of doing absolutely anything to hang onto his power and glory, not least of which included keeping slanderous files on every powerful person in America.
The movie shows Hoover both in his youth and old age, cutting back and forth throughout the film, rather than presenting a linear timeline. This cutting helps to set up the story's elastic history, suggesting that nothing happens in a neat fashion that can be easily described by a single storyline, or timeline. Early on, Hoover tries to seduce a pretty secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), fails, and instead makes her his personal secretary. They continue to share a close, but apparently, non-romantic, non-sexual relationship.
At the same time, Hoover hires the hot young college graduate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who becomes Hoover's right-hand man through decades at the FBI. The movie gives them an always-simmering erotic tension, but suggests that it was never released.
The movie's best trick occurs when the aged Hoover decides to write down his history. He carefully chooses a writer to record his thoughts, but dismisses him when the writer begins asking too many of the wrong kinds of questions. This happens again and again, with Hoover going through writers faster than used tissues. Moreover, Hoover continually asserts his views about the recording of history itself; he's aware of how viewpoints, and time, can change things, and he's trying to curtail this.
Another kicker comes when Clyde, the only one who might know for sure, begins poking holes in Hoover's stories, stories which have played out in front of our eyes in flashbacks, and which we originally believed to be "true." If these flashbacks -- including the heartbreaking "Lindbergh baby" incident -- are not entirely true, then what about the ones Hoover has used to paint a portrait of the Bolshevik threat? Are they made up as well?
And so the entire movie becomes this single struggle: Hoover trying to control history, and history happening all on its own, with or without him. When he tries to use information against Dr. Martin Luther King, he fearlessly predicts that King will buckle and refuse to accept his Nobel Peace Prize. When King does accept, Hoover storms off in angry silence. He can't control everything, and it's a lesson he refuses to learn.
Perhaps the movie's biggest fault is that, to some extent, it tries to have Hoover both ways. Fans will balk at the negative stuff that makes up half the movie, and detractors will balk at the positive stuff that makes up the other half. However, Eastwood cleverly handles ideas like Hoover's "files." The movie makes it credible that Hoover would believe he's doing the right thing by keeping them, but he lets the doubt creep into the audience, for those willing to pick it up.
While J. Edgar is fascinating, it's not one of Eastwood's most exciting movies. Regardless of what you think of the real fellow, DiCaprio's Hoover is more than slightly repellent, even if his power and tragedy make him worth watching. DiCaprio, for his part, does amazing things with the character, but his own single-mindedness somehow fails to capture that essential thing that might have made him human. (It's even creepy when he poses for a "cute" picture with Shirley Temple.) Or is it that Hoover never had that thing to begin with? Maybe he discarded it in exchange for his success. If so, what did people see in him, other than success?
In any case, it's a good thing that Hoover is no longer around to keep files on Eastwood, or this would have been a very different movie. This one at least keeps us thinking and puzzling well after the credits roll.
Warner Home Video has released a two-disc set, with a DVD and a Blu-Ray. The Blu-Ray features a shadowy, yet glistening picture transfer. Eastwood is not known for recording commentary tracks for his films, but the only extra here is an 18-minute documentary on Hoover, featuring interviews with the cast and crew of the film rather than Hoover experts.
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