J. Edgar Review

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by Casimir Harlow Jan 24, 2012 at 8:07 AM

  • Movies review


    J. Edgar Review

    For many, the name J. Edgar Hoover is synonymous with the Federal Bureau of Investigation. It’s no surprise really when you consider that the man went from Law Graduate to Agent while he was still in his teens, made a name for himself in his twenties, and found himself Director of the FBI over a decade before it was even known by that name; he was not only instrumental in founding the FBI, but also in making it the massive Government-run body that it is today, capable of operating across the length and breadth of the United States – which is no easy feat! Whilst in power, his ‘Bureau’ cracked down on the notorious bank robbers of the 30s, including John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, performed counter-intelligence actions against German and Soviet spies all the way through until after the Second World War, and supported over 8 different Presidents. But, after nearly half a Century in office, it was clear that the power that Hoover had amassed had had a corrupting effect, and the darker side to his manipulative and controlling behaviour has certainly contributed towards his overall reputation as something of an Overlord. Considered to be arguably the most powerful man in American history, it’s no surprise that there is plenty in his long, illustrious career and colourful life that filmmakers would want to examine in greater detail – it’s just that nobody has really attempted to fully explore this controversial figure... until now.

    J. Edgar takes us through the life story of this prominent figure, from childhood through to the landmark events in his 50-year reign in the Bureau, all told in flashback as, in his twilight era, he regales his history for the purposes of his memoirs. We learn of the prominent presence of his mother, the inspirational ideas that he had to advance forensics and detective work in the Bureau, the close relationships he formed with those he trusted, and the damage he did to those he didn’t like; all counterpointed with the much darker turns in his later years: his disputes with the Kennedys, his obsession with radicals – including Martin Luther King – and his hoarding of secrets which he could use to blackmail the rich and powerful. Threaded through the piece is a core character study which details his relationship with Assistant-Director Clyde Tolson, posited to be his life-partner.

    Master filmmaker Clint Eastwood takes us through the decades with a keen eye for detail, lovingly and painstakingly recreating the 20s, 30s and 40s, as well as the last decade of his reign. Time and again he has reminded us of his capabilities in period work – from The Changeling to Unforgiven to his World War II double-bill, Flags of our Fathers and Letters from Iwo Jima – and J. Edgar, in this respect, is one of his finest works.

    Adapting a script from the young, Award-Winning writer, Dustin Lance Black – who rose to fame largely thanks to Milk, his study of a more overtly homosexual political figure – Eastwood’s biopic initially focuses on Hoover’s rise to power, and on all the, often great, elements which helped him found one of the most powerful Governmental bodies in the United States, and then largely shifts to a more acute character study of his own personal demons, his repressed feelings and his mostly unrealised relationship with Tolson. Although Black crafts a strong opening salvo to establish the Hoover’s character, it’s his later, more intimate look at the mind behind the man that excels, particularly in his expertly-painted portrait of the somewhat chaste relationship between him and Tolson. Their chemistry is palpable, their often formally constricted companionship believable, and their love for one another – in whatever way you choose to interpret the word – is undeniable. At the end of the day, whilst many detractors may seek to criticise the movie – and Black’s script – for its portrayal of Hoover’s private life, the facts speak for themselves, and are a matter of public record: he never married, never had a child, dined frequently with Tolson, went on vacations with him, and left him his entire estate. The two were buried just a few yards away from one another. Draw your own conclusions.

    However you feel about the way in which they tackle the suggestions about Hoover’s sexuality and private life, there is no question that Black’s script, and thus Eastwood’s film, works best when examining this relationship.

    In bringing the notorious and powerful legend to life, at least in his younger years, there is simply no one better that they could have selected than Leonardo DiCaprio. The man has grown from pretty-boy pin-up to heavyweight master actor in less than a decade, giving us a series of back-to-back powerhouse performances, which have all contributed towards his placing as arguably the greatest actor of his generation. From his standout, arguably career-defining work with Scorsese on no less than four projects – most prominently Shutter Island and The Aviator, the latter where he simply became Howard Hughes – to his critically acclaimed work on Blood Diamond and Revolutionary Road, DiCaprio has proved his talents time and time again. After so perfectly bringing the enigmatic, eccentric and troubled Hughes to life, and given his career trajectory since (which includes another upcoming biopic, The Great Gatsby), he is the perfect choice for J. Edgar, and takes to the character with all the intensity and keen observation that you would expect from such a still-young but masterful actor. Painstakingly maintaining an affected speech pattern, a frequently strained demeanour and a hefty amount of makeup and padding (some of which really does not work that well at convincingly ageing him, although the supporting cast look considerably worse in their make-up) he definitely gets his teeth into this character, and reminds us, once again, of just what he is capable of.

    Despite all of this J. Edgar simply does not work. Whilst Eastwood masterfully recreates times gone by, he flits between the decades capriciously, often seemingly without purpose; without direction. His tonal shift from closely observing the way in which Hoover fights his way to the top, to detailing the repressed love that he had for a fellow Agent is somewhat jarring, and he largely jettisons huge swathes of Hoover’s history – both the good and the bad – in favour of more obtuse political machinations, which largely go unresolved or underdeveloped in amidst the decades-long romantic foreplay. Understandably, there is a whole lot of history to tell in a relatively short period of time, but Eastwood unfortunately misses the opportunity to poignantly counterpoint Hoover’s own closeted behaviour with some of his more controversial actions against his enemies over the years – often revealing their homosexuality, or at least painting them as being homosexual, in order to ruin their careers. This kind of hypocrisy would have given the character a much-needed further dimension, whilst also better establishing the power that he wielded as something of an overlord.

    As it is, whilst he appears to be prepared to take something of a risk with the depiction of Hoover’s private life – when the reality is that nobody will ever know the truth – Eastwood chooses to play it rather safe when it comes to the rest of the man’s life, namely his work for the Bureau. I mean, it’s amazing that Eastwood so skilfully manages to depict both ostensible homosexuality and even crossdressing and yet neither paints the character as a homosexual or a closeted crossdresser but, honestly, I was hoping for more of the man’s life’s work to be incorporated into the piece.

    We get an excellent introduction to how he founded the Bureau, and an involving look at one key case that both plagued and effectively established the more investigative, forensic side of the Bureau – the Lindbergh kidnapping – but this, coupled with Hoover’s private life, is the sum total of the film. We skirt around his nefarious power plays, tricking titbits about the secret recordings he kept on both President Roosevelt’s wife’s lesbian liaisons and President Kennedy’s numerous affairs, but none of it is either fully realised nor tied together to held cement the fact that this was a very powerful man.

    These days the only (State-employed) people in the world who wield this kind of power are dictators in faraway countries – for example the North Korean “Eternal” Presidents. They’re the only people who could hope to have a life term in office. Hoover is the very reason why FBI Director’s these days cannot serve more than 10 years: he ran the Bureau for almost half a Century; he survived the terms of no less than 8 Presidents; and he stayed in office well beyond the official retirement age – the only way he could have done any of these things was by wielding the immense power that he had through his secret files, which could be used to bribe politicians at every stage to leave him alone. Unfortunately none of this is really made clear in Eastwood’s J. Edgar; there are hints for you to piece together, but nothing to make you feel that this guy was anywhere near as powerful as he clearly was.

    I wanted to know more about these secret recordings, the bribes and power plays, the confrontations he had with Presidents and politicians and the confrontations he had with the Mob (I mean, there must be a reason why he largely denied the existence of Organised Crime and yet cracked down on every other kind of criminal!); I wanted to hear about how he hypocritically used evidence of other’s sexuality against them, and yet kept his own predispositions locked up behind closed doors (or even locked up inside his head).

    And I wanted to know the good as well as the bad: this may have been the guy who tried to scupper Martin Luther King’s Nobel Peace Prize Award, but this is also the man who cracked down on the Klu-Klux-Klan, massively stemming their potential rise to power; this is the man whose controversial investigations against often innocent radicals was largely spawned from a very successful hunt for Nazi spies from the end of the First World War all the way through until after the Second World War. For all the flaws that this man had, there were great things that he accomplished, and this film forgets most of the good (beyond the initial establishing of the Bureau), largely glosses over the bad, and instead focuses primarily on what is, essentially, a love story behind it.

    Hell, even the ultimate twist towards the end of the film – whilst it reaffirmed the core relationship and attempted to inject some much needed (arguably too-little, too-late) energy into the final act of what had since become a stodgy period drama – actually only succeeds in somewhat destabilising much of the hard work that was done at the beginning of the film, skewing it yet further in favour of relationship melodrama rather than political biopic.

    I’m certain that there are some who will revel in the relationship drama that is on offer here, engage with the lead characters and their commanding performances (certainly DiCaprio is great, and Armie Hammer does a superb job as Tolson, even if Naomi Watts is largely relegated to a terribly underdeveloped side-role for the majority of the proceedings), and see this is an intimate character study of a misunderstood, repressed, and basically closeted homosexual man. Unfortunately there will be many others, like myself, who would have liked to have heard more about the man’s work; the great things that he accomplished and the terrible actions that he sanctioned; the reasons why he was so powerful; the methods by which he kept hold of that power; and the lasting legacy he left behind. For viewers wanting to hear more about any of these elements, this disappointing biopic provides few answers.

    Certainly not a gripping heavyweight drama, this is more of a slow-burning love story housed within a loose political shell and founded in real-life events. If you are prepared for nearly two-and-a-half hours of that then go and check it out. Everybody else would probably be better off waiting and giving this a rental or picking it up on a home format – particularly when you consider that it is out on Blu-ray and DVD next month in the US on a (hopefully) Region Free release.

    Still impressed by DiCaprio, unfortunately I just expected a lot more from Eastwood (and more from Black, whose own feelings appear to have prejudiced his focus in this script), and I expected a great deal more from a story about the life of arguably the most powerful man that American has ever known. Disappointing; I guess we’ll just have to wait a few more years before somebody else tries to get this particular story right.


    Certainly not the gripping heavyweight drama that we were hoping for, this is more of a slow-burning love story housed within a flimsy political shell and founded loosely in real-life events. If you are prepared for nearly two-and-a-half hours of that then go and check this out, but I personally thought that this tale of arguably the most powerful man that America has ever known was significantly underdeveloped and distinctly lop-sided, omitting most of the more important elements of Hoover's life in favour of simple melodrama and uneventful anticlimax. Still impressed by DiCaprio - who commits to this project almost as much as he did to Scorsese's infinitely superior Howard Hughes biopic, The Aviator - unfortunately I expected a lot more from Eastwood (and more from screenwriter Black, whose own feelings appear to have prejudiced his focus in this particular script), and was generally let down by this meandering, stodgy and largely ineffective look at the flawed but visionary man who arguably made the FBI what it is today. Somewhat disappointing.

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