@MovieJay reviews J.Edgar
J. Edgar proves that movies can do more than simply amuse; they can be empathy machines that deepen our experience. By the end of the movie we’re surprised by how much we’ve come to feel sympathy for one of the most complicated and secretive public figures of the 20th century.
What do most people know about J. Edgar Hoover?
Probably that he was the head of the FBI for a number of years and was purported to having files containing the skeletons in the closets of the rich and powerful. For viewers who lived during his time, they might add the gossip that he apparently liked to dress up as women.
The film weaves effortlessly through seven decades, concentrating most of its time during the Depression era and the post-WWII period of American prosperity and change in the late 50′s/early 60′s. Leonardo DiCaprio is from the outset a curious choice to play the petulant-looking Hoover, but he evolves within the role as seamlessly as the picture moves through the years delivering another Oscar-caliber performance.
J. Edgar Hoover headed the Bureau of Investigation (he was responsible for adding Federal to the designation) for an unprecedented 48 years, from 1924 until he died in ’72. He appears to have been born a political creature with the good fortune of having been raised in the Eastern Market neighborhood of Capitol Hill in Washington D.C. He interned for a popular conservative Senator whose house was bombed and the film is open about his political ideology when he pins it on the usual communist paranoia of the time.
Within a couple of years after the interning stint, he heads the division of the Bureau dealing with illegal immigrants and shortly thereafter becomes Director of the Bureau at the young age of 29. The film does a terrific job showing Hoover re-inventing and expanding the Bureau by securing arms for his agents, the first ever forensics lab and central finger-printing database, and with unprecedented (and unlawful?) warrantless wiretaps. A stickler for details, he culled an entire department of employees that were hand-picked mostly by the cut of their suits and their loyalty to him.
In his role as FBI Director, Hoover portrays a public persona as an earnest hero-in-the-shadows, placing Godliness and duty above all else. In a scene depicting Hoover giving testimony to a congressional hearing, that very persona is called into question when we learn that he hasn’t actually ever arrested a single individual but is all too happy to take the credit, lending his “legend” to comic book writers who fashion him a Dick Tracy-type.
I could go on marking historical facts but it would miss the beauty of J. Edgar, which does all of those things well enough on their own. The fascination at the heart of the movie is that Hoover appears to be a mystery even to himself. A fascinating character study of a most private man, J. Edgar reveals more in the way those closest to him regard him: his mother Annie (Judi Dench), his longtime assistant and companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, who played the twins in The Social Network) and Helen Gandy (an almost unrecognizable Naomi Watts), his lifelong secretary.
All three supporting performances are Oscar-worthy.
Clint Eastwood has the patience and the wisdom to understand that the greatest dramas lurk in the shadows and in the long, dark nights of the soul. It embraces the enigmatic qualities of Hoover and those closest to him rather than pronouncing easy judgment over them.
Consider the way DiCaprio as Hoover meets Ms. Gandy in what has got to be one of the more interesting first-dates we’ve seen in a long time at the movies. With his access, Hoover takes her to the Library of Congress where it’s revealed he overhauled the indexing system in order to make it easier to find books. Hoover comes on strong with her and she rescinds his advances telling him her career will come before anything else. Naomi Watts completely disappears in her role.
All three characters share the same repressed energy, marked from a time when men were supposed to be men (Hoover’s mother disapproves of men who are “daffodils” in a revealing scene after Hoover announces for the first time publicly that dancing with women just isn’t his thing). Armie Hammer delivers a knockout performance as Tolson, with his all-American alpha-looks, but with a mild-mannered grace and soft tone that offsets the sometimes impish, hardened little man that Hoover can be.
A lesser film would have misplayed the notion of sexuality portrayed throughout, labeling Hoover a homosexual and that’s that. But the screenplay is written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for Milk), and it’s more grown-up than that and does a masterful job of showing Hoover, Tolson and Gandy as repressed and lonely individuals who suffer private lives that seem much less satisfying than the public lives they lead. And to the film’s credit, when Hoover does reveal that he doesn’t like dancing with women it has as much to do with how uncomfortable he is in a social world that turns him off or that he’s fearful of.
J. Edgar is slow-moving. It doesn’t lead to a big speech before Congress. It doesn’t make any easy points about the man. Sure, there are terrific sequences showing Hoover and the FBI on the famous John Dillinger case as well as the kidnapping case of the Lindbergh baby and subsequent arrest and prosecution of Bruno Hauptmann. However, those things aren’t played out for the usual movie thrills, they are used to illustrate how Hoover sees himself publicly.
Moreover, J. Edgar is an absolutely fascinating character study of a man and those closest around him who are certain of their public roles but are lost and lonely in private lives that leave them feeling disconnected by their virtue of forever living in look-but-don’t-touch land. In many ways the themes here are similar to Brokeback Mountain, not so much in terms of sexual repression (although that’s a part of it), but in how we witness characters who repress who they truly are and how they actually feel about life — lost in the expectations of what they have been brought up to become. The film is shot in dark blues and greys and black shadows covering the faces of its leads. We find ourselves peering in to try to see the whole of them, but that’s the rub, isn’t it? Their sense of duty to their own causes have made them even enigmas to themselves.
J. Edgar is one of the best and quietly involving movies of the year, another achievement in the most impressive twilight of the career of any director I can think of in the cinema with titles over the past decade that include Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, the WWII dramas Flags of Our Fathers and Letters From Iwo Jima, Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus, and last year’s overlooked masterpiece Hereafter.