How the movie going public will take to a historical period piece is always iffy at best. For people like me with a great historical interest, the decision to go see these movies is an easy one – I’m always excited. For the normal movie lover, I imagine it is a tougher sell. There has to be hook to gain the interest of the general public. Sometimes, it is the person or event being portrayed. Sometimes it is the actors or director that brings in the crowds. It is never a sure thing.
J. Edgar boasts some real heavy weights. Leonardo DiCaprio is the lead actor and Clint Eastwood runs the show from the director’s chair. Naomi Watts and Judy Dench hold major roles. In addition, J. Edgar Hoover himself is an intriguing subject. Only time will tell if modern audiences will have enough interest to make this film successful. I find it hard to believe that younger audiences will have much interest in a movie about a man many probably have not heard of or know anything about. Of course, DiCaprio made The Aviator a hit. Can he duplicate the feat with this film?
It is time for everyone to accept the fact that Leonardo DiCaprio is arguably our greatest leading actor. He is certainly in the conversation. I admit I have been slow to recognize his massive talent and work ethic. I think his portrayal of Howard Hughes was the performance that made me forget DiCaprio got his start on Growing Pains. I know most actors work extremely hard at their craft but I find it hard to believe that many work as hard as DiCaprio. He has been willing to work under, and learn from, some of the biggest names in Hollywood, namely Martin Scorsese, Stephen Spielberg, James Cameron, Ridley Scott, and now, Clint Eastwood. Leo seems to really love the characters studies, the roles where he can due his homework and research, and his love of his work translates beautifully to the big screen. His work as Hoover is no different. He plays the man with subtle precision, maybe even under playing the man. Leo seldom overacts any character or scene, and I think that is his genius.
There is a reason though, while Hollywood has not attempted a bio pic on Hoover before. While much of his public life is now a matter of record, his private life and secretive nature and work is the matter of much speculation. J. Edgar concentrates on his early career and his private life. The film covers his career from 1919-1935 and in the 1960’s through his death in 1972. He is portrayed as a man obsessed with fighting Communism as well as a man who abused his power to gain information on politicians. These themes can be accepted as fact. The movie touches on, without much depth, his battle against the glorified bank robbers of the 1930’s. It also completely ignores the World War II years and the McCarthy years. It speculates on his relationship with his mother and his deputy, Clyde Tolson and most of the movie focuses on these relationships, as well the Lindbergh case.
I don’t have any problems with Eastwood’s take on Hoover relationship with Tolson. There is no positive proof Hoover had any kind of homosexual relationship with Tolson although many believe that to be the case. Eastwood chooses the middle road. Hoover and Tolson have a love affair without consummation. Eastwood uses Hoover’s strict but pampered upbringing as a wall that Hoover just can’t get beyond. It is a subtle battle within himself but he fights it constantly. Since Tolson was Hoover’s nearly constant companion and heir tends to point to a relationship more than chief and deputy, or even best friends.
The relationship between Hoover and his mother is also speculative but possible. Hoover lived with his mother well into his forties until her death. She is portrayed as strict morally but she constantly builds him and props up his confidence. Hoover himself is portrayed as often lacking in self confidence and courage. His public image was a façade and those close to him knew him to be socially awkward. He obviously is an enigma within himself.
The film does give Hoover his due as a pioneer for using forensic science in criminal investigations. Hoover revolutionized investigative methods and Eastwood rightfully spends some time on this subject. The director also delves a bit into Hoover’s illegal information gathering and blackmailing, as well as hints at a possible gambling problem. Eastwood practically ignores Hoover’s lack of enthusiasm for going after the Mafia. It is mentioned briefly that Hoover doubted the Mafia’s existence but considering he was the primary criminal investigator for more than four decades, this little idiosyncrasy was not developed.
To be honest, the film had a few problems. When dealing with such a shadowy, much speculative, and controversial figure as J. Edgar Hoover, it is a mighty big task. While I question some of the omissions, what is covered is dealt with conservatism and responsibility. DiCaprio is brilliant and Armie Hammer (The Social Network) portrays Tolson with care and subtlety. The dialog and filming (much of it in black and white) are well done. While I’m not a huge fan of the constant flashbacks and forwards, the directing was just fine. I enjoyed the film and was intrigued throughout. This film won’t be everybody’s cup of tea but it does a fine job taking a close look at one of the most important figures in the twentieth century in this country.
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