Saturday, November 19, 2011

696 - J. Edgar review



J. Edgar Hoover is a singular figure of American history, an enigmatic, vicious and effective lawman who lorded over the FBI and its predecessor for over 50 years. He had a part to play in seemingly every major American event during this time period, and was so influential that presidents were afraid to fire him. Despite this, his name today mostly conjures images of cross-dressing.

It’s with these things in mind that Clint Eastwood approaches Hoover’s life in “J. Edgar,” a biopic that will be revelatory for those not in the know and an effective but uneasy mix of facts and speculation to everyone else.

Leonard DiCaprio plays Hoover, proof that Hollywood will never discriminate against the extraordinarily handsome when it comes to portraying real-life figures. The film’s chronology plays out portions of Hoover’s life congruently, with his rise to power and famous cases occupying one timeline, the last months of his life (still heading the FBI) on the other.

As history, “J. Edgar” can be flawed at best, as it heavily explores Hoover’s personal life, the details of which largely belong to the dead. Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his second in command apparently only friend, receives heavy emphasis here. Most speculate the two were lovers, and certainly a glance at the evidence makes that conclusion highly likely to be true, though this film plays it somewhere in-between.

The film, establishes a number of facts about Hoover that explain why he was so important. An egomaniac and eager public figure, he became a fixture in public announcement films and agency produced propaganda. He happily presented himself as the face of the FBI, and readily allowed others to believe he more or less was the FBI all by himself, when in fact other men physically did all the dangerous work. And it was an open secret to those in power that Hoover aggressively wiretapped and monitored anyone he found a threat, from politicians to Martin Luther King, Jr. The findings all went into his personal file cabinet, the contents of which intrigued and frightened anyone worth keeping a file on.

The Hoover of Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) struggles mournfully (and very privately) with his sexuality, fueled by a doting yet severe mother (Judi Dench). In a wonderfully written and acted scene, Hoover listens as she recounts the sort of torment that open homosexuals could expect at the time, illuminating why he keeps a perpetually respectful distance from Tolson, keeping his lascivious desires checked even when shielded from the eyes of the world. Even though cloaked in the sexual morality of the day, Hoover readily used the homosexuality of others, real or invented, against them.

Hoover himself would certainly despise this film, even though his treatment falls short of the harshness one would expect. Other than an odd (though thematically appropriate) scene where Hoover does don a dress, his behavior never crosses into outrageousness, and certainly stays far away from many of the worst things said about him. One gets the distinct impression Eastwood sympathizes with a myriad of Hoover’s decisions, ranging from lobbying for a technologically sophisticated FBI to his virulently anti-communist investigations. This Hoover’s not a monster, but a mournfully repressed, self-aggrandizing bureaucrat whose good works coexist uncomfortably with autocratic abuses of his organization.

At the end, we’ve come to know this Hoover, though perhaps not entirely in the best possible way. His personal story as told here imbues him with pathos and respect rarely afforded individuals of his controversial nature. That said, with work history and storied and important as his, one must ask, does what he did in the privacy of his own home matter much? “J. Edgar” portrays Hoover just effectively enough to tease the possibilities of a film that cared even more about his career than his desires.

3 out of 5

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