In Theaters Review of J. Edgar: If you can get past some of the questionable makeup jobs on the “older” versions of the historical figures in Clint Eastwood’s latest drama, you’ll find a fascinating portrait of a man that no one—including himself—ever truly understood.
Clint Eastwood’s J.Edgar Hoover biopic doesn’t take a stand on whether the first director of the FBI should be applauded for his pioneering work in creating forensics units (can you imagine a time when it was acceptable for an investigative police officer to pick up crime-scene evidence with his bare hands?) and spearheading a national fingerprint database (among many other significant accomplishments), or instead demonized for achieving so many of his goals through intimidation, the threat of blackmail, and an extreme disregard for citizens’ rights. However, this non-stance is exactly why I enjoyed the film. I have never considered it to be a requirement for a screenwriter and director to push either their opinions or a segment of society’s opinions onto film-goers in order for their movie to be successful. Let me make up my own mind. Trust that if you’ve presented a compelling depiction of your real-life subject that I will take the next step and investigate more about him or her on my own. Don’t shove your way of thinking down my throat, thank you very much.
Others might view the failure to clearly define a character for the audience as, well, as failure, but when you’re talking about such an immensely complicated man as Hoover, my view is that it would be wrong to not just present the facts (in an entertaining and interesting way, of course) and then step aside.
How director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) chose to unfurl Hoover’s fascinating and complex life was through a series of time jumps (in no particular order) through the decades. Many of these sequences are introduced by Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) looking back on events and dictating his (often exaggerated) memories of them to a parade of writers, who appear to be working on either a history of the FBI or a biography of Hoover. Through these flashes we see a twentysomething Hoover’s horror at the spate of anarchist bombings of businessmen and government officials’ homes in 1919. We see how Hoover came to meet—and then later trust more than anyone else in his life—his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). We see Hoover’s very whacked-out relationship with his domineering, judgmental, and opinionated mother (Judi Dench). And most interestingly, we see how Hoover’s tight bond with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) was formed and progressed to the point where Tolson became not only the Assistant Director of the FBI, but also Hoover’s estate heir… on top of being buried mere yards from his old boss in the Congressional Cemetery.
All of these somewhat disjointed sequences serve the ultimate purpose of giving viewers a good idea of why Hoover was so hellbent on power and success at any cost, why he had only a few people he kept close, and why he didn’t allow himself much time for pleasure of any kind. DiCaprio completely disappears into the role and is fantastic. But guess what? Hammer still steals the show as one of the only truly human characters in the mix, as well as the main source of levity across over two hours of otherwise dead-serious or action-focused scenes. My wish for both of these actors, however, is that their makeup artists would’ve been given a higher budget. Because how they look in the older years is downright distracting. Watts’ Gandy appears to age appropriately and normally, but the two men looked like they were wearing badly painted rubber masks or something. It’s a shame.
I think J. Edgar will surprise a lot of people simply because—at least if (like me) you’re not a history buff and weren’t alive during Hoover’s 48-year-reign (yes, you read that correctly… he was employed by the government from age 24 until the day he died, with only eleven of those years being before the formal founding of the FBI)—you won’t know much about the man’s life or career going into the film. I was left wondering why Hollywood hadn’t already given him the dedicated biopic treatment to date, but thankful that it was Eastwood who finally took on the task.
J. Edgar is now in theaters nationwide.