J. Edgar

24 Oct

 

Director: Clint Eastwood

Writer: Dustin Lance Black

Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts

Motion Picture Rating: 15

Runtime: 137 minutes

 

 

John Edgar Hoover was one of the most influential American men of the last century serving in higher government office for some 48 years and under 8 presidents. Appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, he was the key to its subsequent transformation into the FBI in 1935 where he then remained in charge until his death in 1972. Hoover achieved an enormous amount as director of the FBI, but retains a controversial legacy. It is very clear that he was power hungry, zealous, secretive and unscrupulous at times. He made a lot of enemies, but almost always kept ahead of them via intellect and stealth. It is less clear that Hoover was gay and his close relationship with his deputy Clyde Tolson also deeply affects his legacy.

The depth and breadth of the Hoover story is enough to fill countless volumes, but this film’s director (Clint Eastwood on reasonable form) and writer (Dustin Lance Black, the writer of Milk) focus in on J. Edgar’s private life. The big episodes, Hoover’s pursuit of John Dillinger, the kidnap of the Lindbergh baby, Hoover’s many tussles with the Kennedy brothers etc, are covered, but are not put front and centre. There we have Hoover, his domineering mother (Judi Dench), his loyal assistant (Naomi Watts) and his deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). We get to see how these three closest confidantes influence and support J. Edgar. We also get to see how awkward Hoover can be in opening up and trusting them.

Without a doubt at the heart of this film is an excellent performance by Leonardo DiCaprio. He inhabits J. Edgar supremely well and manages to do so for the full 140 minutes and 50 years of the Hoover story. He is a fine actor. Around him Dench does well, Watts is OK, but Hammer struggles (both with the role and the poor latex ageing make-up). The direction and photography are fine once you get used to the intentional low lighting and almost black & white colouring. This is not, however, a great Eastwood film. He and the writer have delivered an interesting biography, but it is played straight and there are no shocks in theme, story or framing. They have also sat on the fence in terms of the Hoover – Tolson relationship. It would have been more interesting to see how a director such as Paul Thomas Anderson approached this subject.

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