J. Edgar (2012)

20 January 2012

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J. Edgar. During his lifetime, J. Edgar Hoover would rise to be the most powerful man in America.  As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years, he would stop at nothing to protect his country.  Through eight presidents and three wars, Hoover waged battle against threats both real and perceived, often bending the rules to keep his countrymen safe.  His methods were at once ruthless and heroic, with the admiration of the world his most coveted, if ever elusive, prize.

Hoover was a man who placed great value on secrets—particularly those of others—and was not afraid to use that information to exert authority over the leading figures in the nation.  Understanding that knowledge is power and fear poses opportunity, he used both to gain unprecedented influence and to build a reputation that was both formidable and untouchable.

He was as guarded in his private life as he was in his public one, allowing only a small and protective inner circle into his confidence.  His closest colleague, Clyde Tolson, was also his constant companion.  His secretary, Helen Gandy, who was perhaps most privy to Hoover’s designs, remained loyal to the end…and beyond.  Only Hoover’s mother, who served as his inspiration and his conscience, would leave him, her passing truly crushing to the son who forever sought her love and approval.

As seen through the eyes of Hoover himself, “J. Edgar” explores the personal and public life and relationships of a man who could distort the truth as easily as he upheld it during a life devoted to his own idea of justice, often swayed by the darker side of power.

Oscar® winner Clint Eastwood (“Gran Torino,” “Million Dollar Baby,” “Unforgiven”) directed the film from a screenplay by Oscar® winner Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”).

Academy Award® nominee Leonardo DiCaprio (“Inception,” “Blood Diamond”) stars in the title role.  “J. Edgar” also stars Academy Award® nominee Naomi Watts (“21 Grams”) as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s longtime secretary; Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) as Hoover’s protégé Clyde Tolson; Josh Lucas (“The Lincoln Lawyer”) as the legendary aviator Charles Lindbergh, whose son’s kidnapping changes the public profile of the F.B.I.; and Oscar® winner Judi Dench (“Shakespeare in Love”) as Hoover’s over-protective mother, Anne Marie Hoover.

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"Eastwood has become somewhat renowned as a film-maker for intense, intellectual dramas that both stimulate and educate the viewer, and J. Edgar is certainly no exception..."

The FBI, at least from a British perspective, is almost a cinematic term, an organisation we see and hear of most commonly in our favourite Hollywood dramas and thrillers. Therefore, Clint Eastwood's depiction of the life of J. Edgar, the founder and then head of the law enforcement institution for almost 50 years, certainly holds much resonance with film-goers and fans.

J. Egdar Hoover, played by the infallible Leonardo DiCaprio, was a passionate forward thinker, disenchanted with law enforcement of America in the 1930s. He wanted more to be done to catch criminals, forensic evidence and fingerprints had not yet existed and he believed they were the future.

Despite living with his mother (Judi Dench), Hoover, working in the bureau of investigation, soon took charge of the organisation and the FBI was formed. As a result, Hoover was behind the arrests of fugitives such as John Dillinger and Bruno Hauptmann, the latter responsible for the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping.

However, aside from the triumphs and cognition of Hoover's work, behind-closed-doors he was the bearer of many secrets. Without ever admitting to it, he was clearly (at least in the film's depiction) in love with his second in command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), struggling to come to terms with admitting his homosexuality. He also had a top secret file, which a variety of presidents were desperate to get their hands on, yet it remained confidential, trusted in the safe hands of Hoover's personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).

Eastwood has become somewhat renowned as a film-maker for intense, intellectual dramas that both stimulate and educate the viewer, and J. Edgar is certainly no exception, telling a fascinating story of an intriguing character. However, despite the political edge to the film, it manages to tell this complex tale with relative ease, although in some instances, perhaps choosing the well-being of the production over the hard facts. Written by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the screenplay for Gus Van Sant's Milk, clearly has a knack for depicting real-life occurrences in an absorbing way, managing to encapsulate succinctly both the personality of the protagonist, as well as being informative and sincere about the surrounding issues.

However, in order to fully bring the character of Hoover to life, much relies on the performance of DiCaprio, and he is outstanding. He has a wonderful ability of combining the two conflicting characters to Hoover's demeanour, managing to seem both powerful and professionally important, as well as portraying the more vulnerable aspects to his personal life. The make-up department also deserve credit for the latter stages of Hoover's life, although again DiCaprio must be praised for his wonderful ability to play an elderly man, yet keeping in touch with the characteristics of Hoover he portrayed in his earlier years. Unfortunately, the make-up department's acclamation can't go any further, as Tolson looked more like a wax work dummy when in his later years.

Despite that, Hammer is also fantastic as Tolson, as between himself and DiCaprio, the pair have a terrific ingenuity and earnestness in their relationship, deeming it extremely comprehensible. Their relationship is certainly the most intriguing aspect to the film, and the feature may have benefited from focusing largely on that, leaving the political aspects as a mere backdrop. Arguably, up until the romantic storyline takes a hold of the feature, it's lacking in profundity, certainly picking up in the final half an hour when Hoover's affinity with Tolson takes precedence.

This leads to what is the most notable misgiving with J. Edgar, Eastwood’s decisions on what to keep in and what to ignore. Hoover led a long, captivating life and a film-maker must pick and choose carefully how much to present and portray within the production.  Despite enjoying how the story was told - via Hoover, dictating his story to a ghost writer - Eastwood would have benefited from a more simplistic approach, and perhaps left more of the politics out and focused more intently on the relationship with Tolson.

Yet what Eastwood does include remains enthralling and enjoyable, telling what is a fascinating story with a perfect blend of drama and intellect, compactly portraying an important period of time in American modern history. Yet underneath it all is a sincere, yet tragic love story between two men who, when working in such a position and at such a time, were simply not allowed to be with one another.

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