Friday, November 11, 2011

J. Edgar

For his latest film director Clint Eastwood teams up with Milk writer Dustin Lance Black to examine the life of one of the 20th Century's most famous, and infamous, men ever employed by the United States Government - J. Edgar Hoover. Eastwood and Black offer us a Hoover who was a fascinating figure, a great American, and a deeply flawed human being unprepared to deal with his own paranoia, latent homosexuality, and the eventual wealth of power he possessed as the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.

As with many biopics, the story is told through a series of flashbacks as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) goes over his experiences with a series of writers working on his autobiography. The film begins with Hoover's early days with the agency, his promotion, and the ruthlessness he used to move the F.B.I. into the 20th Century by incorporating new techniques such as fingerprint analysis and forensics into police work and changing the image of government agents in the public's perception. He also managed to blackmail a great many people.

For a film centered around one of the most powerful men of the 20th Century there are some alarming gaps. J. Edgar gives us Hoover at the end of his life, and the young man growing the power of the F.B.I. but the middle period of his life with Hoover in firm control of the F.B.I. is almost entirely skipped over. A large section of the film is spent on the Lindbergh kidnapping and the ensuing investigation which was used to help cement the F.B.I.'s power. However, the film then skips forward twenty years or so to Hoover's later years under Kennedy and Nixon (Christopher Shyer) and his eventual death.

The script spends most of its time examining Hoover through his relationships with those closest to him including his mother (Judi Dench), his trusty secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his closest friend and confidant Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Although never proven to exist, the script gives us a restrained homosexual relationship between Hoover and Tolson, explaining their closeness over the years but showcasing characters who were unable or unwilling to act on their physical attraction towards each other.

Although he gives a nice performance here DiCaprio has been better, especially as the older version of the increasingly one-note character. It's not that he's phoning it in, but the movie is far less demanding of his acting chops than it should be.

The supporting actors fare a little better. Watts, who I've never been terribly impressed with, is well-cast as the loyal confidant. Jeffrey Donovan has a couple of nice moments as Robert Kennedy. And Dench is terrific in her role as Hoover's manipulative and overbearing mother, but it's Hammer who really shines. Even through some spotty makeup Hammer is far better playing the older version of his character than the film's star. As Hoover gets older and more curmudgeonly, Hammer is able to give Clyde a little nuance and grace.

For an Eastwood film there are a couple of perplexing oversights. The first is some really bad CGI which is used to showcase Washington D.C. from Hoover's window in the F.B.I. The film also has some pacing issues and becomes unbearably slow in spots. And, as I've already mentioned, the missing years which are rushed through or largely ignored make it feel as if an entire reel of an already too long film is missing.

Some might also find the handling of the Hoover/Clyde relationship a little more amusing than Eastwood intended. I understand the controlled passion the director and actors were going for, but I also heard more than a few few giggles from the audience in scenes that come off more over-the-top than they should and were definitely not played for laughs. The single scene which attempts to address allegations that Hoover was a closet crossdresser also feels a bit out of place.

J. Edgar is one of Eastwood's lesser recent works as a director with far more in common with Changeling and Gran Torino than his more ambitious recent projects such as Hereafter and Flags of Our Fathers. I enjoyed the film and it's definitely worth seeing, but given the writer, director, cast, and subject matter, I expected more.

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