A Dreamer Walking

J. Edgar- Review

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on November 13, 2011

J. Edgar is a fantastic portrait of one of the most powerful men of the 20th century. The film spans more then five decades, yet the filmmakers seem to express exactly what they want without anything feeling rushed. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover is in my opinion the greatest performance of his life. He walks the delicate line between the image the public knows Hoover as being- a stuck up man set in his principles, and the J. Edgar hidden away from the public eye- a man deeply conflicted between a need to please a unbending authoritarian mother and wanting to follow his emotions for his life long companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The movie has and will be criticized for not being as thrilling or as epic as the public seems to think the name dictates. Yet, I am pleased Clint Eastwood showed restraint and let us get to know J. Edgar on a personal level rather then following the endless amount of speculation and exaggeration that comes with such a private and powerful figure.

Clint Eastwood’s delicate use of special effects transports us back to the 1920 and brings us through the 1960’s beautifully. Eastwood’s simplistic old school way of using the camera compliments these time periods. We are given a clear and rich environment for the story to take place. The film starts with J. Edgar in the 1960’s expressing his past in a favorable light, dramatizing events he took part in and putting himself into events he was never part of. When showing Edgar’s side of the story Eastwood creates noir look. The FBI is at times portrayed in the typical Hollywood light, far more dangerous and suspenseful then it usually was. However, the goal was never to thrill us with a bunch of gun fights between the FBI and the Mob. Instead, we are given a clear cut portrayal of how Edgar and the FBI rose to power.

It quickly becomes apparent that Eastwood is telling two stories of Edgar’s past, the one Edgar dictates to the young author who is writing his memoir and the more personal story of his relationship with his mother and Clyde Tolson. We begin to see Edgar’ flaws- how awkward he is with woman and how paranoid he is with those who don’t see eye to eye with him. Early in the movie Annie Hoover, played by Judi Dench, burdens her son Edgar in the only flashback of him as a child when she tells him, “you will rise to be the most powerful man in the country”. Annie is Edgar’s driving force. Judi Dench does a lot with little screen time. She represents a woman who was not given the opportunity to have power of her own so is living her life through the accomplishments of her son. Even at her deathbed she pushes Edgar to be strong and not give in. Annie bluntly forbids Edgar from indulging in his true feelings for his right hand man Clyde Tolson. This creates a tension between the two men that is carried all the way through the film. The chemistry between DiCaprio and Hammer is magnificent. The heart of the film is a love story between two men forbidden to express publicly their true feelings for each other.

J. Edgar is a story about a very flawed man who created a magnificent organization. It is easy to admire Edgar’s drive for excellence in this film. He is constantly refining the FBI, making it care more about order and the preservation of evidence. We see Edgar’s constant struggle with presidents in his career. The only president we actually have the benefit of seeing at any length however is Richard Nixon, played by Christopher Shyer. We also see Edgar interact with Robert Kennedy, played by Jeffery Donovan. Both actors portraying these two historical figures do a poor job. Richard Nixson is played as a stereotype rather then how the president would actually behave. Donovan’s unnaturally slurred Boston accent was a huge distraction and stopped me from connecting to his character. Yet, these two characters do not play huge roles and so do not interfere with the overall story.

In no way does the movie excuse J. Edgar’s blemishes. Hoover has a relentless ego that hurts his relationship with everyone around him. If he is questioned Edgar immediately assumes his opposer does not have America’s best interest at heart and begins to investigate him or her. He shows little affection for his life long secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and is quick to accuse Clyde Tolson of not supporting him. Yet, with all the flaws we see in J. Edgar, there is a humanity few could have expressed as well as DiCaprio. The nuance of Dicaprio’s performance lies in the scenes when he is either alone or with people he trusts, where we can see the turmoil in J. Edgar’s heart. Most of Edgar’s inner feelings are expressed through looks rather then dialogue. We see a conflict in his mind when he is spies on President Kennedy, listens to his mom’s instructions, and when Clyde reveal the truth about who he is and what he really did in the 1930’s and 40’s.

Clint Eastwood’s simplistic piano score is perfect for this movie. His music was much more personal then a fully orchestrated score would have been. The movie does a fantastic job of jumping back and fourth between the 1960’s and 30’s-40’s. We are able to see the consistency of Edgar’s routine contrasted with the changing times. We see the relationship Edgar and Clyde have as old men and then are shown how they built their relationship. One distractions in the film was the old man makeup for specifically Armie Hammer. As a old man in the 60’s Hammer looks like he is wearing a mask that almost completely prohibits his ability to express emotion with his face. There are a few times where a little more expression would have done a world of good. Yet, the chemistry between the two actors overcomes this flaw and the last scene with Edgar and Cylde is one of the most touching scenes Eastwood has ever created.

Clint Eastwood is the master of underplay. His subtle touch to this Edgar story is what made this film work.  Eastwood embraced the eloquent screenplay of Dustin Lance Black and allowed his actors to dictate the direction of their characters. With his magnificent ability to trust the material and actors Eastwood gives us a film that is devoted to showing the heart of a deeply complicated man. Every scene increases our understanding of who J. Edgar is and the conflict that drives him away from those who love him and toward his ambitions to create a safer America. J. Edgar Hoover is loved and hated by many, this film does not take a side. Instead, it gives us insight to a man who thought he was untouchable.

6 Responses

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  1. Tom said, on November 13, 2011 at 10:59 pm


    An interesting Post. I’m looking forward to seeing this movie. I think you explained what you felt well. Nice post

  2. Liz said, on November 16, 2011 at 6:20 pm

    This is a well written and thoughtful review. I also saw the movie and am glad that I did. I thought DiCaprio was brilliant (he has become one of my favorite actors in recent years – The Departed is probably my favorite film of his) and I found the presentation of this story very interesting with the flashbacks and narration. I thought Eastwood did an excellent job of creating a piece that portrays human complexity and internal contradiction. I really respected the fact that he didn’t try to make the main character likable – although I think that will certainly turn a lot of people off to the film. I feel certain there will be some Academy nominations and possible some awards. Having said all of that I do understand those who are disappointed with the movie – the pace is going to be too slow for some and it’s not a movie that leaves you with any kind of “feel good” experience. I probably would not recommend it to anyone except those who I consider to be “serious” about films/movies without some warnings. I have wondered if the movie might have achieved a little more success at the box office if it had been advertised as a love story (which is what it really is) instead of giving the impression that it was a straightforward biopic.

    • Jacob said, on November 16, 2011 at 7:11 pm

      I am glad you liked the review Liz. I actually do not think it will get any awards and I think it only will get a few nominations. The movie really tanked with the critics and they usually give you a clue on whether or not the Academy will have any interest in the film. I think the trailer allowed us to see some of the relationship between Clyde and Edgar. I agree it could have advertised that part a little more. However the big problem was the score for the trailer(s). The score for the trailer(s) was way more built up then anything in the movie. Clint Eastwood actually did the music himself and it felt obvious his intent was to concentrate on the relationship between Clyde and Edgar from the very beginning.

      I do not think the film will appeal to all age groups. Clint Eastwood is usually considered to slow and old fashioned for the younger generation. However, it is their loss. Eastwood knows how to celebrate the quite moments in film. The scene where Edgar is listening to the sex scandal video, when he goes to his house at the end of the film, and when Clyde finds him, are all done with such eloquence and simplicity that I was completely drawn in.

      Anyway, thanks for the comment. I am planning on going to “The Descendents” this next weekend. I am sure that will make for a good review as well.

  3. CMrok93 said, on November 18, 2011 at 3:00 pm

    Good review. There are problems with the story mainly because it feels like we are just going through all of these events that happened in Hoover’s life, without any real connection or anything. However, DiCaprio’s performance is great and Eastwood really does know how to direct any type of film and at least bring out some rich drama with its story even if it may be a bit muddled. Check out my review when you get the chance.

    • Jacob said, on November 18, 2011 at 8:47 pm

      Well thank you for commenting Dan. I don’t necessarily agree with your review. I actually think there is an endless amount of controversies and cases the film could have concentrated on, yet they were able to restrain from most of them. The ones the film did concentrate on I felt contributed to the more personal story of Edgar and Clyde and the evolution of the FBI. I actually enjoyed the fact that the film jumped back and fourth because we were able to see how devoted people like Clyde and Helen were to Edgar allowing us to see the person rather then just the stereotype. I also did not feel like it had a bunch of endings. I felt like the core of the film was in the Scene where Clyde last talks to him, revealing many of the exaggerations Edgar made about the past. Only after Clyde reveals this do we see Edgar truly open up to Clyde and we understand how much Edgar needed Clyde in his life. After that, the films finishes pretty quickly. Anyway, I enjoyed reading about your opinion on the movie and again thanks for commenting.

  4. karen said, on October 5, 2012 at 2:24 pm

    I could not have expressed what I thought of the movie any more clearer beautifully said I agree the movie showed all sides of Hoover I now understand him even more now . I love DiCaprio anyway and I agree this is his best performance .

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