Sunday, November 13, 2011

J. Edgar

J. EDGAR (Clint Eastwood, 2011)

In the biographical picture J. EDGAR director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black track the career of the longtime Federal Bureau of Investigation director.  Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, a morally certain man who improved and expanded the once-Bureau of Investigation’s ability to fight crime, although not without amassing his share of detractors.  

Hoover rose to the top in 1924, saw the agency become federal in 1935, and stayed until his 1972 death.  The legality of his methods, not to mention his secret files, made him powerful and controversial.

Framed by the head G-Man dictating his memoir, J. EDGAR has a lot of territory to cover and does so swiftly.  The Palmer raids, the Lindbergh baby abduction, and the relentless pursuit of gangsters and political subversives are tied together in a fleet, often exhilarating yarn of a righteous man who will not rest until he has stamped out all criminal and radical elements.  Hoover is clear and authoritative when recounting his accomplishments, yet J. EDGAR questions how reliable of a narrator he is and at what cost such unyielding professional striving did to the individual and the nation.

The successful but petty and vindictive man at the center of J. EDGAR is as much a mystery as what he kept in his confidential files.  Eastwood and Black give Hoover credit where it’s due, especially in the admiration for his organizational rigor and faith in scientific evidence as a valuable tool.  The speculative private life they give him, in which he and associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) share a closeted and presumably unconsummated relationship, goes a long way in humanizing a man who would ride roughshod over the livelihoods of his subordinates and perceived enemies.

DiCaprio does marvelous work portraying a man who, frankly, seems like he would have been unpleasant company, even to those long loyal to him.  Hoover’s magnetism derives from his intellect, certainty, power, and sense for myth-making, and DiCaprio bears that out with a performance of a man who himself may be constantly performing as though he has nothing to hide.  Hammer’s Tolson seems in awe of and puzzled by his friend and co-worker.  Hoover’s longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) demonstrates great respect and empathy even as she appears not to understand this man she’s know for decades.  Something must have earned their dedication.  That mystery is what encourages looking even closer at this blank slate of a person.

Grade: B

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