Sunday, November 20, 2011

J. Edgar / *** (R)

J. Edgar Hoover: Leonardo DiCaprio
Clyde Tolson: Armie Hammer
Helen Gandy: Naomi Watts
Annie Hoover: Judi Dench
Robert Kennedy: Jeffrey Donovan
Colonel Schwarzkopf: Dermot Mulroney
Charles Lindbergh: Josh Lucas
John Condon: Zach Grenier
Bruno Hauptmann: Damon Harriman

Warner Bros. Pictures presents a film directed by Clint Eastwood. Written by Dustin Lance Black. Running time: 137 min. Rated R (for brief strong language).

“Reputation is an idle and most false imposition, oft got without merit, and lost without deserving.”
       —William Shakespeare, “Othello” Act II, sc. 3.

John Edgar Hoover, the man often credited with the creation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, could hardly be accused of being an idle man, but in the eyes of many of his detractors he was best seen as an opportunist, worst as a fraud. Clint Eastwood’s new movie “J. Edgar” explores the motivations that drove this somewhat reclusive public figure who changed the course of crime science at a time in this country’s history when the criminals were being touted as folk heroes. All the while, he hid a secret that would eventually alter public perception of a man who dedicated his life to his country. Was he really a homosexual? I’m not sure Eastwood is as interested in the facts here as he is in how that possibility may have shaped the man who held great power over every president that served while he was director of the nation’s police force.

Directing from a script by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), Eastwood presents Hoover’s story under the framing device of a manuscript Hoover dictates to young FBI agents throughout his final years as director. Hoover tells his own story in flashbacks, alluding to his rumored homosexuality, but never stating it. More important to Hoover in the manuscript is his reputation as the man who altered the course of the country’s law enforcement system through the implementation of the criminal sciences.

Hoover begins his story with his involvement in countering the Bolshevik Revolution as it spilled over into the U.S. in the form of terrorist attacks against political figures, including his own boss at the U.S. Department of Justice, Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson, “Dexter”).  Hoover was appointed director of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation in 1924 as Palmer left public service. Eastwood and Black play with the facts a little here, suggesting that Palmer did not survive the restructuring of the Department of Justice by the newly elected administration. Many of the facts are flexible in this screenplay as it toys with the notion of Hoover as a master manipulator both politically and with his own self-perception.

Hoover’s primary influence in life is his mother (Judi Dench, “Quantum of Solace”). Annie Hoover fosters his ambition. She sees his father and brother as failures, and may have driven them there with her harshness and overt favoritism of John. Certainly, she fuels him professionally and personally, yet, she warns him against his personal choices for their threat against his career.

Mrs. Hoover is not the only woman in his life. Ever present is his career-long personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, “King Kong”), to whom he makes an awkward proposal early in their careers. The scene proves Hoover knows nothing of the emotions of love, but feels he must copy what he has seen in terms of courtship. Despite his superficial advances, Gandy remains loyal to Hoover throughout his career, even dispatching with his infamous confidential files once it’s clear that the Nixon administration is determined to end his legendary run as the FBI director.

The most important relationship in Hoover’s life, however, arrives in the form of a stunning young lawyer by the name of Clyde Tolson. Armie Hammer made a splash last year playing both Winklevoss twins in the award winning “The Social Network”. Here he provides another emotional performance as Hoover’s would be lover. This is where Black’s screenplay really shines with the subtle management of the men’s feelings for each other. Both are career-minded men. Both know if any hint of their feelings were known, even to each other, it would mean the end of all they’d worked for and achieved.

Surely, the most talked about element of this movie will be its central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover. It’s one of those transformational performances where an actor has obviously studied his subject to the point where he has absorbed Hoover’s essence. Like his performance as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s underrated “The Aviator”, Dicaprio doesn’t so much imitate Hoover as he does channel the man. Even in old age make up, he’s able to capture the dichotomy of a man driven by ambition and pained by his own personal secrets. There’s no mistake that a man with such a big secret to hide is obsessed by keeping tabs on the secrets of others. I liked how his use of the confidential files to intimidate and influence those around him is more about keeping what’s in them secret than threatening to expose them.

“J. Edgar” is not the strongest Eastwood film to come from the master director. Of course, with the decade long string of excellence Eastwood has produced prior to this movie, it would be hard to continue to top himself. The inaction of keeping secrets does little to draw the audience in. The relationship between Hoover and Tolson goes almost the entire running length of the film before being acknowledged in any definitive way. Even so, “J. Edgar” turns out to be one of the most unique biopics I’ve seen because of its supposition of the facts. Unlike most biopics, “J. Edgar” is not based on any sort of source material, but is original unto itself. Even Hoover might approve of its use of allusion above revelation.

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