The face of law enforcement in America for almost fifty years as FBI chief (1924 - 1972), J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is feared and admired, reviled and revered. He fills millions of files with the secrets of the rich, famous, powerful - and the not so. But he harbours secrets of his own that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life.
Review by Andrew L. Urban:
Information is power, he is quoted as saying and J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) lived by that dictum all his professional life - which was about 50 years long. As the Director of the FBI, Hoover was very well informed, once he established networks of informants and wire taps to keep him so.
In this film portrait by Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black, we are presented with a Hoover who is at once vulnerable on a personal level and obsessively driven on a professional one. His ambiguous sexuality is given what seems an asexual homosexual bend and his lack of hobbies, friends, interests and partners - until Tolson turns up - underlines his focus on saving America from its enemies within and without.
Eastwood and Black aim for character study, avoiding overstatement or sensationalism. The film doesn't shy away from his sexuality, neither does it overplay it. As a controversial figure, Hoover was complex and a figure of hate as well as respect. Perhaps we could have seen more of those aspects on display.
The film's most telling insight is when his mother (Judi Dench) effectively admonishes him against homosexuality - albeit in metaphoric words. It effects him deeply and leaves a mark.
The storytelling format not is unfamiliar: the elderly Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a series of young agents who dutifully type his words on a portable typewriter. Remember, he died in 1974. As Hoover recalls his life, we slip back in time alongside his memories. This device is only partially successful, for a variety of reasons, one most obvious being the loss of continuity and the resulting loss of tension.
Another distraction is the casting: DiCaprio is a great actor, but his physicality gets in the way, especially as the structure requires him to age, rejuvenate, age some more and rejuvenate again, this time to a younger man. DiCaprio's boyish looks don't age well, no matter how talented the make up team. For those familiar with Hoover's appearance, this is accentuated to a serious degree. It shouldn't matter - and if the storytelling were more robust and powerful, it perhaps wouldn't.
Undeniably interesting in general, the film fails to catch fire because there are scant specifics to make it riveting. The one piece of juicy gossip comes from a love letter to Mrs Roosevelt - which turns out to be from a woman lover. This is the kind of material Hoover collected, and then let it be known to those who cared, ensuring he had plenty to bargain with, in order to get his way. But since none of his private files were ever found (as declared at the end of the film), there is just conjecture and assumption to rely on, which isn't enough for a full bloodied film of Hoover.
The film's thrust is that he was always motivated by the moral high ground of America's national good. It also gets right how such a moral stand can itself corrupt a man into acting immorally in the process.
Armie Hammer is terrific as Clyde Tolson (his aged persona also defies the make up artists somewhat) but Naomi Watts is a cool and steady Helen Gandy, Hoover's lifelong PA, and her ageing is quite convincing - good enough not to be distracting.
Most distressingly for an Eastwood film, we don't fully accept its authenticity.
Review by Louise Keller:
While Clint Eastwood's portrait of the enigmatic J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) recounts the story of his auspicious professional life and achievements as FBI Chief for 48 years under eight presidents, the two most memorable scenes are of an extremely personal nature. One involves his mother (Dench) to whom Hoover is extremely close; the other involves Clyde Tolson (Hammer), Hoover's Achilles' heel and the only person Hoover needs as he struggles with his sexual preferences.
It is indicative of Eastwood's superb storytelling skills that this complex, meticulously researched story flows like a stream, allowing details, time jumps and events to wash over us with clarity. Leonardo DiCaprio's magnificent depiction of Hoover is extraordinary in this fascinating and insightful film. Some may argue Eastwood is overly kind to the man with the big ego, who makes controversial decisions.
With a superb screenplay by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, the story is structured so as to allow the story to naturally dip in and out of the past. When the film begins, Hoover (DiCaprio almost unrecognisable with ageing make-up and prosthetics) is dictating a chapter of his life-story. He has a strong sense of the importance of history, keen his contribution is not forgotten.
A man of vision, Hoover has firm ideas to lead the new anti-radical section of the department, in order to protect America from the threat of communism and radical zealots. I like the scene when he takes pretty new secretary Helen Gandy (Watts) on a date - to demonstrate his new library card indexing system. The evening might not end as he originally anticipates when he tries to kiss her, but a commitment is made nonetheless: the girl who never intends to marry becomes his private secretary and confidante. She understands that information is power. (Watts delivers a powerful, understated performance.)
There are many memorable moments between Hoover and the handsome, smartly attired Tolson, but none more so than a weekend at the races; it is here in their hotel suite that they speak about their feelings for each other for the first time.
It's a devastating, brutally honest scene and one whose subtext we understand, especially in the context of Hoover's mother disdain for homosexuality. Hammer, fresh from his role as the rich Harvard twins in The Social Network, is outstanding.
The insight into the workings of the FBI is fascinating. We observe Hoover's obsession about his dossier of secret files, including those on Eleanor Roosevelt and her alleged lesbian lovers. He champions his fingerprint library with its clever card indexing and how the infamous 1932 Lindberg kidnapping prompts a law-change to make kidnapping a federal crime. The scenes involving a brusque exchange with Bobby Kennedy and the mutually negative relationship between Hoover and Richard Nixon are also interesting.
This is an elegant film from a classy filmmaker that will satisfy a discerning, intelligent audience.
First published by the Sun-Herald
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J. EDGAR (M)
CAST: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Hamilton, Geoff Pierson, Cheryl Lawson, Katlyn Dever, David A. Cooper, Naomi Watts, Gunner Wright, Jeffrey Donovan, Dylan Burns
PRODUCER: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz
DIRECTOR: Clint Eastwood
SCRIPT: Dustin Lance Black
CINEMATOGRAPHER: Tom Stern
EDITOR: Joel Cox, Gary Roach
MUSIC: Clint Eastwood
PRODUCTION DESIGN: James J. Murakami
RUNNING TIME: 137 minutes
AUSTRALIAN DISTRIBUTOR: Roadshow
AUSTRALIAN RELEASE: January 26, 2011
RIVERSIDE SCREEN PREMIERES
A program of premiere screenings of new movies prior to their commercial release
on 6 consecutive Tuesdays, starts February 17, 2015 at Riverside Theatre,
Curated & presented by Andrew L. Urban, discussion to
follow with special guests. Briefing notes provided.