Monday, November 21, 2011


J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Produced by Mr. Eastwood, Brian Grazer and Robert Lorenz
Released by Warner Brothers Pictures.
Running time: 2 hours 17 minutes.

Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic chronicling the life of the 20th century FBI front-man, J. Edgar Hoover, is a sympathetic account of the man behind his public persona. Hoover, played by a seriously stern Leonardo Dicaprio, is gifted humanity by Eastwood not exclusively, but predominantly through his relationship to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Eastwood directs the film with a slow and steady hand, paying respect to the half-century Hoover devoted to the zealous protection of his country. And although the film runs long at 2 hours and 17 minutes, it is not quite long enough to condense history in a way that makes clear sense. Of course, pre-existing knowledge of America history helps, but nonetheless; the swift, seamless jumps between various decades are blurry at best. The film travels back and fourth in time so frequently that, at times, it is difficult to grab hold of the frame and anchor you in the story.

Still, Eastwood’s treatment of the subject-matter is elegant and without judgment – questioning Hoover’s morality without reprimanding it, empathizing with a man’s passion instead of criticizing it.

The film is saved by moments of undeniable and surprising tenderness. This relief is provided by the stoic, gentle-but-stern advice of Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) and his fragile, cloudy relationship with Clyde. From a mother and son waltz in a hotel room, a bloody kiss in Del Mar, to Hoover’s cross-dressing after his mother’s death – these little moments give Hoover his humanity – a humanity that is totally crushed under his larger-than-life public persona.

Hoover was undoubtedly a difficult character. He established some of the most important modes of criminal investigation in history, but not without flaw. He was hard-headed, narcissistic, hot-blooded, and often hypocritical, engaging in plenty of overlooked illegal behavior. The film treads these lines carefully, paying homage to both aspects of the man without dipping into liberal or conservative pools. It remains neutral. The neutrality is delicate, but also frustrating. Nothing is hammered home. No point is driven clearly forward through the plotline. The audience is not told anything, just forced to think.  

Dicaprio gives Hoover his deserved severity and strength, at times touching at vulnerability, but the performance to recognize is not from the mega-star, but his supporting actor. Armie Hammer steals the show with a natural, tender, and true performance. His stature and his voice immediately draw attention, but he handles the controversial aspects of Clyde with elegance and subtlety. He ages seamlessly and so convincingly, we forget it is even the same actor. He has a full-bodied awareness of age. Hammer’s performance is seemingly without effort and wonderful to watch. Naomi Watts lends her talents to Hoover’s backbone secretary, Helen Gandy, whose relationship with Hoover hovers somewhere between blind devotion and careful criticism.

The film is a heady historical whirlwind, with rhythm and style and intellect. The majority of the film has its roots in political drama and ethics, but it ends a story of love, friendship, and human devotion.  

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