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.