Saturday, November 19, 2011

Movie Review: Is This The REAL Story Of J. Edgar?

According to the new Clint Eastwood-directed movie J. Edgar, as the face of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover was feared and admired, reviled and revered. And that is probably true.
And the movie also contends that behind closed doors,  J. Edgar held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. Whether that part is true or not, we're not so sure. But we do know that he held lots of secrets about plenty of very powerful people and those secrets could have destroyed many big careers.
J. Edgar is written by Dustin Lance Black who wrote the script for the Harvey Milk biopic Milk. Milk was a pioneering gay San Francisco politician who became an early gay-rights hero before he was killed by a fellow member of the city's Board of Supervisors. Black is himself gay and there was much speculation as to how far this film would go into rumors of Hoover's homosexuality and cross-dressing as well as his alleged love affair with he longtime assistant and near-constant companion Clyde Tolson.
While this is not a film about gay politics and the LGBT community (as Milk was) the relationship between Hoover and Tolson is a big part of the story.
J Edgar is really about three things:
First, it's about public relations and the gathering of information and the use of that information to create an image and enhance power. J. Edgar Hoover was a consummate tactician, a detail-oriented guy who was also a brilliant PR man, both for himself and his agency, the FBI. Hoover literally created the myth of himself -- a fearless, focused, fastidious G Man who would stop at nothing to rid America of crime, criminals, saboteurs and traitors. Never a person of great physical strength or stature, he made himself bigger than life.
Second, it's about the insecurity of a Mama's boy and the desperation of anyone who stays too long in one job, one position, one place of power. When you overstay your welcome in a job or a pursuit you become not merely a sad figure but a desperate one as well. You don't know what else to do with yourself and your inability to move on is a reflection of the fear of your own end -- your own death. We've seen this happen (mostly among men) again and again and it's a truly pitiful thing to watch. It's painful -- both in real life and in the movies. We see it again here.
Finally, this is a love story. But it's a twisted love story with a bizarre quadrangle: a driven, calculating mother (played by Dame Judi Dench); a manipulative, pretty-boy companion (played by Armie Hammer); a devoted, thorough and nonetheless cool loyalist (played by Naomi Watts) and J. Edgar himself (played by Leonardo DiCaprio. What these people do to one another is nothing less than tortuous. There's enough angst here for five or ten shrinks.
J. Edgar jumps back and forth in time and for those of us who lived through many of the tale's events there's not much to tell here: no real suspense, no surprises and not very much character development. And though the production cost an estimated $35 million it looks cheap and badly mounted at times.
Plus, the main characters emerge as not very interesting. Let's face it: J. Edgar Hoover was not exactly the life of the party -- any party. And in part because the other characters revolve around him, they also seem awkward and undeveloped.
And (here we go again) the movie is too long by at least 20 minutes. I saw at least five places where it could have ended very nicely, thank you.
But what this movie does have is a bravura performance by Leo DiCaprio. Not since Orson Wells inhabited the persona of Charles Foster Kane (aka William Randolph Hearst) in Citizen Kane have I seen anything quite like this. DiCaprio is masterful. As Hoover, he compels your attention every moment that he's own the screen -- and that's just about every minute of the film.
Be sure of it: DiCaprio is a Star of the highest magnitude.
As for Hoover himself, he was no saint but he wasn't the devil incarnate either. He was shrewd, single-minded and seemingly well-versed in the language of power. And after all, that really is the language of Washington. Hoover built the FBI and helped advance crime fighting by light years.  He set out to make his mark on the life of this nation and he succeeded unquestionably.

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