J. Edgar

January, 2012, Drama

  

As he nears his 82nd birthday later this spring, Clint Eastwood continues to amaze audiences with his skills behind the camera. J. Edgar is his 35th film and while it has garnered neither the critical or audience success he’s achieved in the last decade, J. Edgar stands as a first-rate movie that burnishes the actor-turned-director-turned soundtrack-composer already lustrous reputation.

 

The title refers of course to man whose surname is superfluous; the head of the F.B.I. remains an icon in mid-20th century America, notable for his longevity as the country’s leading policemen and ultimately for the frighteningly despotic control he exercised over our national police system. Working from an original script by Dustin Lance Black, (the Oscar winning writer of Milk) Eastwood and Leonardo diCaprio fashion a portrait

of an obsessive, paranoid and sexually–repressed control freak whose need to feed a self-image inculcated by his mother (Judy Dench) led him to conflate perceived threats to American national security (foreign and domestic) with challenges to his authority as a career bureaucrat.

 

Over the course of nearly 5 decades, Hoover rose from a junior position in the Justice Department to something of a national despot in law enforcement, injecting “his” bureau into areas of criminal activity which had for years had been under the jurisdiction of local/state authorities. Overbearing with his staff and dismissive of his law-enforcement brethren, Hoover drove the F.B.I. into a position of national prominence, only to erode those efforts with increasingly illegal wiretapping and information gathering on a number of pubic officials. His private records allowed him to blackmail successive presidents and other nationally elected officials and finally to engage in crafting slanderous lies about Martin Luther King in an effort to tarnish the civil rights leader.

 

With frequent but illuminating flash-backs, Eastwood traces the growth of Hoover’s power as it metastasized into obsessive concern with the private lives and sexual proclivities of the powerful and politically connected - - and this as his own confused sexuality spawned rumors about his relationship with Clyde Tolson, (deftly played by newcomer Armie Hammer) Hoover’s personally-selected 2nd in command. From the Lindbergh kidnapping to the gangster era which followed the Depression and on to the furious battles over which federal agency would have jurisdiction over international security, J. Edgar presents a sobering portrait of a man unable to understand himself and thus ultimately fated to misunderstand the country of which he so publicly declared himself the guardian.

 

The director and his cast don’t focus on the exploits of The Bureau as such; rather, they offer a compelling character study of this widely admired but little-known public servant whose image belied a peevish desire to crush his opponents. As portrayed by an especially-effective diCaprio, Hoover emerges as a man so totally lacking in self-knowledge he can’t distinguish his own lies from one another. Employing a voice loaded with clipped pieties and an increasingly hunched posture, diCaprio delivers a man who aches to be admired, but who lacks the innate self-confidence to accomplish the task.

 

Cinematographer Tom Stern collaborates with Eastwood film on their 9th film by bathing the screen with oppressively dark shadows, the better to convey Hoover’s obsession in hiding things from others, but especially from himself. Eastwood’s straight-forward directorial point of view allows the complex script to carefully place Hoover’s progression into cartoonish parody while sketching, with remarkable clarity, the criminal milestones in nearly half a century of American history. The result is a story with a big canvas that features at its heart a surprisingly intimate portrait of a nasty and ultimately pitiable man.

 

The Verdict? Don’t be put off by the professional critics who wanted a grimmer presentation of Hoover’s villainy nor by younger audiences who longed for a gangster flick; this is quality movie-making by one of Hollywood’s masters and well worth your while.

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