Saturday, 21 January 2012

J. Edgar

Year:  2011
Director:  Clint Eastwood
Screenplay:  Dustin Lance Black
Starring:  Leonadro DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Damon Herriman, Ed Westwick, Jeffrey Donovan
Running Time:  137 minutes
Genre:  Drama, biography

This film tells the true life story of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.  In the 1960s, Hoover (DiCaprio) dictates the story of his rise to power to a succession of young agents.  In 1919, a 24 year old Hoover makes a mark by targeting alleged Communists after a series of letter bombs are delivered to prominent politicians and public figures in Washingotn D.C.  After being appointed Director of the Bureau of Investigation, Hoover's scientific methods of criminal investigation are brought to bear in the high-profile Lindbergh baby kidnapping case.  However, in the 1930s, when the FBI declares war on the "public enemies" (famous gangsters and bank robbers such as Al Capone and John Dillinger), Hoover becomes a household name.  However as time passes Hoover becomes increasingly paranoid and obsessed with surveillance, building up bulky covert files on countless American citizens (both guilty and innocent).  At the same time he is troubled by his repressed homosexuality, and desire for his best friend, Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

This is a film which is easier to admire than like.  It boasts a strong central performance from DiCaprio who has the difficult task of portraying a complex man from his mid-twenties to late seventies, it is well shot with immaculate production design and period detail.  Visually the film employs a palette which seems to bleed all the colour from a scene making it look virtually black-and-white.  For a film that mostly takes place in gloomy, cavernous offices, it gives it an appropriately somber look.  However, the film suffers trying to pack in seven decades of American history into about two and a quarter hours, which means that many important and interesting elements are either skipped over or ignored entirely (most notably Hoover's relationship with Melvin Purvis, who was at one time the FBI's number one agent  and became famous for shooting John Dillinger.  However, allegedly jealous at Purvis' fame, Hoover turned on him).  Another problem that the film has is the prosthetic make-up for when the actors play their older characters, DiCaprio's is fine, but Hammer's just looks comical, like a rubber mask.  Also the film is very slow at times.  Hoover promoted an image of the sharp-suited, square-jawed, clean-cut, gun-toting FBI "G-Man", but he himself was a man who spent his career behind a desk, and much of the film is basically people talking in offices.  Action is kept to a minimum, and that which there is strongly hinted to be a product of Hoover's own self-mythologising.

For a man who was preoccupied with the private lives of others, and was always hungry for fame and publicity,  Hoover kept his own private life a closely guarded secret.  The film makes it pretty clear that Hoover was gay but very deep in the closet.  In one chilling scene, Hoover tries to explain to his mother (Judi Dench) that he is not interested in women and his mother harshly responds that "I would rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son."  One of the most famous rumours about J. Edgar Hoover was that he was a transvestite, although this has since been discredited.  It's not even mentioned in the film. 

A film that is so focussed on it's central character means that the other characters rarely have much of a chance to make an impression.  Armie Hammer is impressive as Hoover's close friend, Clyde Tolson, which the film depicts as having  along term almost-romance with Hoover, Naomi Watts is underused as Helen Gandy, Hoover's long-serving secretary and Judi Dench gives a good perfomance as Hoover's sour, deeply religious mother.  DiCaprio plays Hoover with sympathy and sensitivity, no matter how unpleasant the things he does.  Hoover comes across as a bully and a power-hungry manipulator, who would do everything and anything to get what he wanted.  However, it is a testament to DiCaprio's skill and the film's script that Hoover emerges as a sympathetic, if not likeable, character.

This is an interesting enough movie, and makes a good attempt to explain an extremely complex man.  In fact, it is good enough that it is really frustrating that it is not better.

Leonardo DiCaprio in J. Edgar

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