Tuesday, November 8, 2011

J. Edgar

Diluting The Power Of An Infamously Powerful Man

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in Clint Eastwood's biopic drama "J. Edgar".
 Warner Brothers
Omar P.L. Moore/        Follow popcornreel on Twitter FOLLOW                                           
ay, November 8, 2011

"We must learn from our history," says J. Edgar Hoover, played with brusqueness and gusto by a brown contact lensed Leonardo DiCaprio, towards the end of Clint Eastwood's biopic "J. Edgar", which opens tomorrow in New York City and Los Angeles before opening everywhere in the U.S. and Canada on Friday.

Early on Mr. Hoover, arguably the most powerful man in America for almost 50 years as the director of the Federal Bureau Of Investigation, is seen in Mr. Eastwood's drama in his latter years telling a young agent who is recording his biography about his life and tenure in the Justice Department.  "J. Edgar" tells Mr. Hoover's life story in a jagged way, jumping around and out of sequence in various facets of his life, covering his rise as a young agent with two left feet, to one of his greatest moments as an overseer of the conviction and execution of the Lindbergh baby kidnapper and killer, though under infamously questionable circumstances.  There are some good moments such as the loyal relationship between Helen Gandy (disciplined and dignified work by Naomi Watts), Hoover's long-time personal secretary (for 50-plus years) and closest confidante.

Where "J. Edgar" falters, and falters heavily, is in its depiction of Mr. Hoover's personal life, specifically his homosexuality, which for some reason the director and Oscar-winning "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, a gay man, strangely balk on.  Mr. Hoover's lover for many years, Clyde Tolson, is treated more as a heterosexual's idea of a gay caricature or stereotype rather than as part of a genuine loving relationship seen in films like "Brokeback Mountain", so that the effect (with several exceptions at the film's cloying, orchestrated and manipulative climax) is not to take the relationship as seriously as it should have been. 

Instead of engaging in open-ended peek-a-boo theatrics or clichés about gays Mr. Eastwood should have gone courageously into the night and left everything on the table.  For 70 years Mr. Hoover's sexuality has been an open secret and well-documented along the way (see Anthony Summers' book Official And Confidential: The Secret Life Of J. Edgar Hoover, among numerous others), so why leave it open to question and obfuscation?  Box-office returns, perhaps?  Fear of possible backlash from a homophobic America?  Who knows.

"J. Edgar" gives us a sense of the power Mr. Hoover wielded, though only faintly through some bursts of dialogue, but I'm not sure audiences who either weren't around for Mr. Hoover's near half-century tenure or who don't know the history of the man will come away from Mr. Eastwood's film gaining any appreciable insight into him.  "J. Edgar" feels rushed, fragmented and finally hollow.  That the film fails to take a stand and provide a more forceful accounting of Mr. Hoover's ferocity and notorious witch-hunting ways is a major disappointment. 

Mr. Black's screenplay tries to be too ambitious and vague as does the director, and in the end "J. Edgar", a polite and restrained film, compromises its title subject.  If "J. Edgar" can nail Richard Nixon so accurately and persuasively in two scenes of brief dialogue then why on earth couldn't Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Black get the core of their main subject right for the film's duration?  It's a puzzlement that they weren't able to make it work. 

Granted, this well-intended film accurately highlights Mr. Hoover's other proud moments during his long tenure and rightly recognizes him as the pioneer of the F.B.I., a vindictive spy of public figures including Dillinger F.B.I. agent Melvin Purvis and political movements (COINTELPRO in the 1960s, among others) as well as a tragic hero who lived some of his legend in denial and lies, but "J. Edgar" doesn't pick one or two events or chapters from one slice of life and stick with them or evolve them into a greater contextual meaning and insight into the man, so that we are in effect looking at a series of loose ends.

What results is an indecisive and scattered experience.  "J. Edgar" wobbles because it is unfocused and because it bites off more than it can adequately chew.  The film's running time may be its biggest casualty; at two hours and 17 minutes it is of insufficient length for audiences to really get a meaningful sense of Mr. Hoover.  No film biopic of any length can reasonably do so of course, but had "J. Edgar" been at least three hours long (like prior fellow Warner Brothers releases "Malcolm X" and "JFK", or Disney's "Nixon") the exploration of the main character may have been richer.

Mr. DiCaprio gets the tone of Mr. Hoover right in bursts but the soul of the man is buried in effective prosthetics and make-up.  The lead performance is akin to Morgan Freeman's Oscar-nominated work as Nelson Mandela in Mr. Eastwood's 2009 film "Invictus", much of which is based on a true story.  Here, Mr. DiCaprio is constrained though fairly effective but in the end his work is more mannerism than essence, like Mr. Freeman's Mandela.  ("Invictus" as a film was slight and transparent.  "J. Edgar" is much the same, only with tempestuous, stormy scenes.)  Armie Hammer ("The Social Network") is good as Mr. Tolson but the performance like the film overall remains mostly on the surface.  Judi Dench gives an icy showing to the role of Mr. Hoover's mother in scenes that provide some back story of Mr. Hoover's childhood and young adult years.

Aside from the wonderful "Letters From Iwo Jima" (2006) over the years in the true story/biopic department Mr. Eastwood hasn't necessarily fared well.  Forest Whitaker was effective as Charlie Parker in "Bird" (1988) but its dark, dank crevices and shadowy tone wallowed in the gloom and tragedy of Mr. Parker's alcoholism, nearly evaporating the strong work from Mr. Whitaker.  "Invictus" was weak and lacked staying power, ceding the strength of Mr. Mandela as a central figure to a "Rocky"-type sports story involving South Africa's rugby team.  "J. Edgar" self-sabotages what should have been a riveting powerhouse of a film, but most of the time Mr. Eastwood and company are positioned on its outer periphery, at a safe distance from any controversy.

With: Gunner Wright, Geoff Pierson, Ed Westwick, Dylan Burns, David A. Cooper, Cheryl Lawson, Kaitlyn Dever.

"J. Edgar" is rated R by the Motion Picture Association Of America for brief strong language.  The film's running time is two hours and 17 minutes.

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