Sunday 19 April 2020

Movie Review: J. Edgar (2011)

A biography of the legendary FBI Director, J. Edgar sparkles in patches but otherwise wallows in the greyness of a secretive personality.

In a rather clumsy narrative device, most of the film's events unfold in flashback as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) recounts key events to a young agent. In 1919, Hoover's mentor Attorney General Palmer narrowly escapes an assassination attempt. Placed in charge of finding the perpetrators, Hoover establishes his reputation at the Bureau of Investigation by clamping down on criminals he perceives as anarchists and communist agitators. Even as he matures Hoover remains deeply influenced by his domineering mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench). He romantically pursues secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) but she only wants to focus on her career and becomes his permanent confidential assistant.

The 1932 kidnapping of celebrity aviator Charles Lindbergh's baby son grabs the nation's attention, and Hoover argues for increased money and resources for a politically independent national crime fighting agency. In 1935 he is appointed the first head the new Federal Bureau of Investigation, and proceeds to create a professional organization using increasingly scientific methods to combat crime. New college graduate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is one of the agents recruited by Hoover, leading to a lifelong friendship - and more - between the two men. As his career progresses Hoover builds a collection of secret files, and uses his knowledge of sordid personal details to maintain his grip on power under a succession of United States Presidents.

Hoover was in charge of the FBI and its predecessor agency from 1924 until his death in 1972, a total of 48 years. Dedicated to crime fighting and an expert at consolidating power and navigating around politicians, Hoover was an enigma, a master at keeping and using secrets, and as such a most difficult man to decipher.

Director Clint Eastwood, working from a script by Dustin Lance Black, has a go at finding the human being behind the legend. Despite a mammoth length of 140 minutes, the film is only partially successful. Eastwood bathes the screen in the grey and pale brown of government bureaucracy, and initially gives about equal time to crime fighting and personal insights. But when tackling Hoover's character, J. Edgar first suggests an overbearing mother with her claws deep in her son's psyche then sinks too far and too deep into the mud of the relationship between Hoover and Tolson.

Rumours of Hoover's homosexuality have long swirled around his legacy, and here Eastwood portrays a deep friendship and long-lasting companionship, underpinned by Hoover resisting the expression of a present love, leaving Tolson more tortured than content until it's too late.

Regardless of how much truth resides in this version of the relationship between the two men, the lovers' subplot becomes the overriding obsession of the film, dramatically detracting from any other aspect of Hoover's life. In the film's final act professional machinations at the FBI are relegated to interruptive snippets, the crime fighting almost forgotten. And overall, after the Lindbergh case Eastwood generally loses interest in the FBI's activities and how Hoover shaped them in favour of some quick and dirty arrest recreations and conversations about secret files used to cow Presidents into staying out of Hoover's hair.

The film requires Hoover, his assistant Helen Gandy and Tolson to age about half a century, with a decision made to have DiCaprio, Watts and Hammer play the characters throughout. It's a huge ask from the makeup department, and they generally fail. DiCaprio can play young but as an old man is never anything other than DiCaprio in bad old man makeup. Hammer suffers mightily, his aging transforming him into a survivor of a cinematic zombie apocalypse, and that's before a severe health crisis befalls the character. Watts emerges with the least amount damage, her aging portrayed relatively realistically and with grace.

With unmistakable quality on both sides of the camera J. Edgar sustains its weight, but not without evidence of sagging.

All Ace Black Blog Movie Reviews are here.

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