Friday, 18 November 2011

Not Like There's Anything Wrong With That: "J. Edgar" Review

There's a moment a little while in to J. Edgar, where an elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), dictating his autobiography to an agent (Mike Vaughn) asks the agent, "Who was the most famous person of the twentieth century, thus far?" The agent eventually asks "Is that you, sir?" Hoover seems mildly amused the agent would give this answer, though we can't help but think there's some kind of pride Hoover finds in being seen as famous.

Of course, we don't know exactly what Hoover is thinking in this moment, and its this type of mystery which extends all the way through J. Edgar. The film, while it explores the secret life of the man who was the head of the F.B.I for nearly fifty years, doesn't really try to explain the man. I think it's possible that director Clint Eastwood, who himself grew up when Hoover was in power, is still struggling to figure out the man who arguably held more power than the eight presidents he served under.

The film shifts back and forth from Hoover's younger years in the 1920s and 30s, when he first became head of the Bureau of Investigation, which eventually became what we know as the F.B.I., his relationship with his right hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)-and Hoover as an old man, dictating his biography. I liked this approach for several reasons. One is that it allows you to get used to the old age makeup on DiCaprio and Hammer. The make up has been harshly criticized but I for one was able to settle in to it as the film progressed. I also like how the film's structure gives equal emphasis to both young and old Hoover instead of showhorning older Hoover in to the last few minutes of the film. Another nice structural element is the juxaposition of certain scenes and moments that connect the past and the present. For example, an older Hoover and Tolson get in a elevator and then we cut to the younger Hoover and Tolson getting out of an elevator; we see Hoover on a "date" with secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) where he asks her to marry her but eventually has to settle for her as his secretary- we then cut to a scene older Hoover and Gandy, and just by juxapositing these two scenes, we get a sense of a long history between these two.

Dustin Lance Black's script (he also won an Oscar for writing another biopic, Milk), as well as the film itself, is surprisingly sympathetic towards Hoover, which has angered at least one critic. The film is less interested in demonizing Hoover than exploring Hoover's inner demons. A major focus of the film is the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, whom many believe was a romantic one. While these claims are still speculative, the film shows Hoover as a man, who despite loving Tolson, cannot be himself because of the era he lived in, his mother's statement that she rather have "a dead son than a daffodil," and his committment to his work above all else. In it's own way, J. Edgar is Brokeback Mountain with cops; but I don't mean to trivialize the film with that joke because J. Edgar gains its emotional resonance, its heart, from the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Christy Lemire mentions the looks DiCaprio and Hammer share for just a little too long, and its moments like these, as well as Tolson's condition that he joins Hoover as his right hand man, they never skip a meal, which communicate deep yearning for human companionship within both men.

DiCaprio may be the most unglamorous movie star we have in that he specializes in really haunted individuals who aren't always clearly the protagionists of the film. While DiCaprio doesn't look like Hoover, as portrayed in this film, he's an almost perfect fit for DiCaprio. There's always seems to be a certain "DiCaprioness" which comes through in DiCaprio's performances, not that's he's playing himself but more a larger than life version of himself. I think this is what turns some people off of his performances, and certainly it takes a little while to settle in to DiCaprio's performance; but once you do, and I think the old age scenes help, DiCaprio once again provides a really live wire performance. His mid atlantic accent, while distracting at first, gives Hoover an old fashioned feel. It's also been noted, and is shown in the film, that Hoover had a stammer and the accent's rigidness was a result of combating the stammer.

Hammer played the Winklevoss twins in David Fincher's The Social Network; the twins were symbols of American manliness and entitlement but here Hammer gives a much softer and sympathetic performance as Tolson. Hammer gives Tolson an open face, not afraid to show his character's vulnerability, but he also shows Tolson's efficency of character as well as his intelligence and I found him very convincing as a man Hoover could fall in love with.

Unfortunately, Naomi Watts doesn't get as strong a character arc as DiCaprio and Hammer but she's very effective nonetheless in capturing Gandy's loyalty and precision as Hoover's secretary. Judi Dench, who plays Annie Hoover, Hoover's mother is chilling in the aforementioned scene when she tells Hoover about a boy who was killed because he was found out to be gay and that she'd rather her son be dead than gay.

I thought Jeffrey Donovan's accent, playing Robert Kennedy, was distracting so it was to completely get in to his scenes with Hoover.

I think the main problem with J. Edgar is that it tries to focus on too much but not enough. Much of the focus regarding Hoover's career involves the kidnapping of the Linburgh baby, which led to kidnapping becoming a federal crime. This section of the film has great detail and is an important part of Hoover's career but I wish we had seen more of Hoover's career, particularly regarding gangsters like John Dillinger. I also feel, and this comes back to the sympathy issue, that the film doesn't delve deep enough in to Hoover's darker characteristics. We see him blackmail Robert Kennedy with information about his brother's affairs, as well as listen to a bedroom liason between Martin Luther King and a woman, but I think the film needed to show more of Hoover's tyranny over his office. DiCaprio has played morally ambiguous characters before but I feel showing Hoover as a tyrant would have allowed DiCaprio to be darker than ever before. I think with this film, you have to take it less as a completely literal biopic of Hoover than one interpretation or angle on him. If taken that way, J. Edgar provides an interesting cipher of a man and in DiCaprio's performance, still one of the most interesting movie stars of our times.     

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