J. Edgar Directed by: Clint Eastwood Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins Rating: R Release Date: November 11, 2011
PLOT: J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was the leader of a new kind of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years known as the FBI. Behind the scenes, he held secrets about others and himself that could have destroyed many lives.
WHO'S IT FOR? It's a slow drama with powerful acting performances. It does not really take a positive or negative perspective, but there are plenty of warts shown in Hoover's life.
EXPECTATIONS: Buzz was trickling in that this wasn't good. But some of those comments were about wasting DiCaprio's looks. I wasn't worried about that, and I didn't care about the running time unless that also meant it was boring.
How we remember someone or something matters. It truly matters. There are shapes of gray for all of us, just like the tint used by Eastwood in the physical look of this film. For most guys in our 30s, I would imagine J. Edgar Hoover conjures up the image of a thick old man in a dress. For me personally, that was about the extent of it. I knew little about his upbringing, his passions or even exactly how long he was in charge of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). I also didn't realize how much he shaped, and how much he hid from our country.
If there is one thing I could say about J. Edgar the film is, it is steady. You cannot exactly say that about the man DiCaprio embodies. This character, and it is important to remember this is a character, not guaranteed 100 percent fact, is constantly pushing and doubting his image onto the American public.
The film truly does cover J. Edgar Hoover's entire life. Annie Hoover (Dench) is his mother who clearly had the biggest influence on her son. Her morals, her finger-pointing dictated what kind of man J. Edgar would become, even his name was her influence. Everyone called him John, but she kept saying Edgar, and it won out. Dench is as domineering as ever in this role. There is a tinge of Psycho in her mothering, but in this case it's not just hotel guests who could pay the price, but the American public.
There is an odd-man (in this case woman) in the cast. The character that is the least flushed out is Helen (Naomi Watts). She is devoted to J. Edgar, but we don't get a sense of why this is the case. On the other hand, we clearly understand Clyde's (Hammer) motivation. Clyde was drawn to J. Edgar immediately and became his right-hand man. The two share a relationship even if J. Edgar does not seem to know it or recognize it. In fact, J. Edgar seems to be stunted. He is a child in most instances. One perfect example of this is when he's clearly flirting (or attempting to flirt) with three ladies and then one asked him to dance. It's out of his comfort zone and he immediately is repelled at the notion. He's also repelled by left-wing liberals and he uses his governmental powers, and some powers he wasn't granted to try and shape this nation the way he wanted.
There are moments that may feel forced on the audience. After all, seeing J. Edgar in a dress, or what his heart truly desires seems to be played out in our pop culture. J. Edgar is a punch line instead of a true leader and visionary in the way our country is shaped. When's the "right time" to see him in a dress? Will it cause some to chuckle? I found the exploration of J. Edgar's personal life completely satisfactory for the character that Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and DiCaprio created. The close relationship between Clyde and J. Edgar is what I would expect from the times. Hammer brings a perfect, calm balance to the tense performance DiCaprio must give.
This is my favorite Eastwood film since Million Dollar Baby. That's the last film I can easily call "good," though I still haven't seen Changeling. It sits in my iTunes waiting for me to find the right time. Most of Eastwood's last decade of work has been rushed. I didn't feel that was the case with J. Edgar. It doesn't hurt he has more than two hours of running time to work with.
Eastwood also does a great job capturing the look of the film. I was shocked how effective DiCaprio's makeup is in this film. Sure, Jon Voight has to be insanely upset he didn't get to play the older Hoover, but thankfully the audience doesn't have to suffer with bad makeup that removes us from that character or any other. How can the Oscar's not reward this with Best Makeup?
J. Edgar Hoover can hold his hat on things like fingerprinting, having a national law enforcement agency with true power and even organizing libraries. He is also a nerd with extreme power and some true emotional baggage. That means you have to take the good with a lot of bad. Luckily for us, that "bad" comes in the form of secret files, meetings with Presidents and some genuinely touching moments with his right-hand man Clyde.
J. Edgar Hoover was living a lie, willing to spread lies, and desperate to stop liars. It's a tangled mess on a very important man. Helen and Clyde were his entire inner-circle. He seemed to have extreme power, that was rarely checked. I find that fascinating. I'm not upset that I don't get to know all of the secrets, and I like Eastwood's soft hand on this overwhelming subject. Performances by DiCaprio, Hammer and Dench make this Eastwood film worth your two-plus hours. How you remember someone, and how you remember yourself are perfectly examined in J. Edgar.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10