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.
J. Edgar stars Leonardo DiCaprio (Titanic) as J. Edgar Hoover, the former director of the FBI. An aging Hoover dictates his memoirs to a writer, focusing on his rise to power and the policies and procedures that he implemented during his reign. Told through flashbacks, the story takes place over the course of about 50 years but mainly concentrates on the Lindberg baby kidnapping case, as well as on Hoover's relationship with his secretary, Helen Gandy (The Ring's Naomi Watts), and his associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, the twins from The Social Network).
There are a couple of things that one can expect from a biopic. First, it will be long. J. Edgar is just short of 2 Â½ hours. Second, it will have a certain slant, depending on the filmmaker's opinions about the subject. Director Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby) and writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) focus on the juxtaposition of the two sides of Hoover - his hard-boiled public profile and his private, insecure persona. The two different faces of Hoover are related in their dichotomy; the flashbacks and memories show the real Hoover, who is a shy, socially awkward introvert, and the Hoover he presents to the public, who is a rugged, tough hero. The result is a fascinating portrait of a very confused man trying to act like he's not confused.
The problem with J. Edgar is that it's probably a little too much like real life, and very little happens in real life. As compelling as DiCaprio's performance is, it's a bit like the old joke about a good actor reading the phone book; there is a lot of talk and not much action, and the whole thing just drags on seemingly forever. DiCaprio does justice to J. Edgar Hoover, but the script doesn't.
Oh, and the film does deal with the cross-dressing rumors, but not in the way that one would expect. Eastwood answers the question that everyone's asking tastefully and organically, and in a way that, surprisingly, makes a lot of sense to the character.
Dustin Lance Black's script is standard biopic fare. It's long, wordy and speculative. Black explores some interesting facets and theories about Hoover, particularly the rumored homosexuality and relationship with his trusted aide, Clyde Tolson. While the subject matter is interesting, the screenplay is not, and the film suffers for it.
J. Edgar has no story arc, just a series of events. Most of the real conflict occurs within Hoover's head, a struggle between the private mama's boy and the public G-man. There is no concrete plot to the film. The stakes are never raised, so the tension never builds, and a climax with a resolution never occurs. The film is less a complete look at the life of Hoover and more a chain of unrelated happenings. The movie probably follows the public events of Hoover's life too closely, which does not make for anything more than a forgettable biography.
Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a solid performance in the lead role in J. Edgar. His physical transformation is obvious - he seems to have put on about 30 pounds, and the costumes and makeup make him look like he's put on even more - but he also nails the character. He is completely believable as the confused weakling who overcompensates for his shortcomings by intimidating his subordinates. DiCaprio transforms into Hoover, and plays the part well through all 50 years of his career.
Bonus points should be given to all three of the main actors (DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Arnie Hammer), as they all portray their characters through the entire 50 year span of the storyline. The characters in their later years wear some of the worst aging makeup ever applied to a human face. DiCaprio's isn't too bad, and it's obvious that the makeup department spent more time on his face since he gets the most camera time. However, Poor Naomi Watts' beautiful features are slathered with enough latex and tissue to make a fetish film, and Hammer's aged mug literally looks like a Halloween mask, complete with sunspots on its bald head. Despite being stuck in the stiff makeup, the actors still do a great job with their older characters, even though they often have to rely solely on their eyes to get their point across (since the rest of their face is completely obscured). The actors are the only life in an otherwise dead film.
November 11, 2011