DENNIS SCHWARTZ Movie Reviews

 
J. EDGAR (director: Clint Eastwood; screenwriter: Dustin Lance Black; cinematographer: Tom Stern; editors: Joel Cox/Gary D. Roach; music: Clint Eastwood; cast: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert F. Kennedy), Geoff Pierson (A. Mitchell Palmer), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover), Ed Westwick (Agent Smith); Runtime: 137; MPAA Rating: R; producers: Clint Eastwood/Brian Grazer/Robert Lorenz; Warner Brothers; 2011)

"It's a reliable film that in a fair-minded and caustic way adds to the legacy of Hoover as a powerful but compromised lawman who was obsessed thinking he would be America's protector from the Communists."

Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz 

Clint Eastwood ("Hereafter!"/"Unforgiven"/"Letters From Iwo Jima") finely directs an overextended historical biopic on the controversial J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who served under eight presidents, was the first director of the FBI he ran for 48 years, used his position of power for his own glory and kept power by retaining secret files to blackmail those he dealt with behind closed doors who might bring him down. The mostly unflattering portrait of Hoover by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Oscar winner for the screenplay of Milk, makes no bones about portraying the rigid mean-spirited control freak Hoover as a "scared horrible little man" who never came out of the closet, was a bigot, a hypocrite, a self-promoting publicity hound, a fanatical patriot, a dull dogmatic thinker, someone who would suppress the truth for his own dark purposes and held grudges on anyone who would not bow to him. Yet also shows him as an innovator in police procedures by starting an FBI crime lab and a filing system of fingerprints for the country's felons.

It's a complex script that begins in the 1960s and through constant flashbacks crosses the lines of history from the 1920s and 1930s. It shows the aging Hoover reacting to the changing times of the 1960s and still saying such things as “Communism is not a political party — it is a disease”. The always publicity conscious Hoover is seen over a long period of time dictating his memoir to a succession of chosen agents he is sure will write only flattering things about him and support all his bold lies he told the media to promote his image. After the agent writes the episode, we then see via a flashback Hoover's heroic Hollywood fantasy image of himself recreated to that time in history.

It covers Hoover's beginning career work as an up-and-coming investigator in 1919 for Attorney General Palmer (Geoff Pierson), who as a result of bomb attacks by red radicals initiates the infamous Palmer Raids that go beyond its authority and arrest all radicals whether they committed a crime or not. It shows Hoover as a momma's boy, who lived with his hateful aspiring socialite controlling mom (Judi Dench), someone whose counsel he always sought and was always in fear of disappointing her. After sonny boy runs home in fear because he turned down a dance with Ginger Rogers's mom at a Manhattan club, momma Hoover tells her obedient son “I’d rather have a dead son than a live daffodil”  and the model son responds to her warning by trying not to act so effeminate again in public. The other important woman in Hoover's life is his loyal, asexual secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who will be with him from almost the beginning to the end of his career and is the only one he trusted to keep his "confidential file." Hoover's most significant love relationship was with Clyde Tolsen (Armie Hammer), a handsome agent he hired in the 1920s who soon was promoted to be his second in command. Clyde became Hoover's erstwhile dinner companion and confidante, and they were always seen together in restaurants, at racetracks or buying tasteful matching conservative clothes in a fictionalized upscale shop named Julius Garfinkle (blacklisted actor John Garfield's birth name). The most gay scene of the two FBI heads together, has the usually reserved Clyde throw a temper tantrum after lover boy says it might be good for public appearance sake if he marries the actress Dorothy Lamour. The narrative never says if Hoover ever consummated his relationship with Tolson, preferring to stick only with the facts they can corroborate.

The film ends on a wonderfully bizarre revealing moment, as upon learning of Hoover’s death Nixon reacts by telling his henchmen in private in the Oval Office “I want those fucking files” and then going on TV praising Hoover as his friend and for being a great man.

With a believable Hoover impersonation by DiCaprio, wearing a prosthetic face to simulate Hoover’s obstinate bulldog look, the actor gives an Oscar caliber performance capturing the uptight FBI director's vulnerabilities and ruthlessness. He's a man who is viewed by many as a monster who ruined many lives and as a closeted gay man, who banned gays from joining the FBI. Yet he's someone who had a very tender and loving forty year relationship with his deputy, who upon his death in 1972  inherited his close friend's estate. DiCaprio somehow got all that psychology down and made his monster a bit more human than perhaps his many enemies would have liked, by likening his longtime friendship with Clyde to a tragic love story. In other words, Eastwood didn't do a hatchet job on his controversial subject but instead was serious about trying to find out what Hoover was like from the facts about him that were verified by research.

It's at times a clumsy film, loaded down with too many awkward flashbacks back-and-forth between the early and late days of Hoover's career, but it's a reliable film that in a fair-minded and caustic way adds to the legacy of Hoover as a powerful but compromised man who was obsessed thinking he would be America's protector from the Communists. Hoover was a difference maker in Washington, who lived a repressed life and was trapped by his secrets, ambitions and fears. He's a fascinating character to study psychologically, someone Eastwood tries to get inside his head to see if he can figure out what made the lonely career-minded psychologically tortured man act in such a queer way that he would go out of his way to do vindictive and illegal things. In one instance he gets secret tapes of Dr. Martin Luther King having illicit sex and plans to use it against him because he heads the civil rights movement--a movement Hoover believed was inspired by the Communists.

Unfortunately the ambitious film never digs deep enough to cover profoundly what it brings up about Hoover's megalomaniac power trip. Instead it's too busy rushing off from one case to another before exploring deeper: as the slow-paced and old-fashioned film moves from an episode about the G-Men fighting Depression-era gangsters to the notorious Lindbergh kidnapping in 1932 to dealing with a hostile RFK in the 1960s. In the end, it leaves off too many things about the enigmatic Hoover that would be necessary to know before we can close the book on him, yet it tells us enough to get an idea of what kind of a twisted humorless driven man we are dealing with.

REVIEWED ON 11/25/2011       GRADE: B

Dennis Schwartz: "Ozus' World Movie Reviews"

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