J. Edgar

J. Edgar featured image

November 11, 2011
By Marc Glassman

Clint Eastwood, director
Dustin Lance Black, script
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Damon Herriman, Ed Westwick and Jeffrey Donovan.

The buzz:

Eastwood directing DiCaprio as the notorious founder of the FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation) J. Edgar Hoover: how many Oscar nominations are in the offing?

Advance word was also all about Eastwood’s treatment of Hoover’s homosexuality. Would DiCaprio and Eastwood “out” the closeted FBI man?

The genres:

Bio-pic with a strong gay text.

The plot:

In the 1960s, an aging J. Edgar Hoover, under attack by the liberal Kennedy administration, dictates his memoirs to young Agent Smith.

In flashbacks prompted by his reminisces, Hoover’s career from the anti-Bolshevik Palmer raids of 1919 to the creation of the FBI to the arrest and conviction of Bruno Hauptmann, the accused kidnapper and killer of American hero Charles Lindbergh’s baby, is recounted.

Simultaneously, Hoover deals with threats to his power as FBI head from the Kennedys and eventually Richard Nixon.

Hoover’s personal life is also related in the flashbacks: his problematic relationship with his controlling mother Anne Marie (Judi Dench), his personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and the love of his life, agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
The performances:

DiCaprio is like an old-style NFL fullback: he hammers into the opposition’s line over and over again for one yard–and then breaks it, with an amazing run, every once in a while. You can’t call his J. Edgar one-note but he does overdo the “indomitable” card.

And he is up for the being scene with Armie Hammer’s Tolson, where the two fight and eventually declare their love for each other.

Naomi Watts and Judi Dench? Are they ever less than superb? Two of the best scene-stealers in the business are on hand–and DiCaprio has the good sense to underplay to their strengths.

Armie Hammer is fine as Tolson but the makeup department has let him down in the 1960s scenes. He looks like a young man with a lot of pancake on his face, not an aging gay FBI agent.

The direction:

Eastwood’s pacing used to be relentless (Mystic River) or inevitable (Million Dollar Baby). Now, it’s glacial.

No pancake has been flatter than J. Edgar’s tone.

But…the performances in the film–as always–are fine and the art direction, superb. And the scenes in the ’20s and the ’30s are beautiful evocations of Eastwood’s film noir sensibility.
Eastwood is getting to be too old to handle these big projects. But who else in American movies has his gravitas?

The skinny:

J. Edgar should be an out-and-out (yes, joke!) success. It isn’t–but, yes, you should see it. Be prepared for a film that’s at least 20 minutes too long. But what would you cut?

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