“J. EDGAR” (2011) Review

“J. EDGAR” (2011) Review

Actor/director Clint Eastwood directed his third – or possibly fourth – biopic film, during his career, with “J. EDGAR”, an examination of the career and private life of F.B.I. director, J. Edgar Hoover. The movie starred Leonard Di Caprio as the infamous lawman. 

“J. EDGAR” is a 137 minute movie that spanned Hoover’s career in a series of flashbacks. The movie begins in the early 1960s, when the famed F.B.I. director is recounting his forty-to-fifty years as a Federal lawman. Hoover’s recollections span from his participation in the Palmer Raids – a series of attempts by the U.S. Department of Justice to arrest and deport radical leftists, especially anarchists, from the United States, his appointment as director of the Bureau of Investigations in the 1920s, his “War on Crime” campaign in the 1930s, the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping during the same decade and his investigation of civil rights leader, Martin Luther King Jr.. The movie also focuses on his use of blackmail to retain his position with the F.B.I., and his relationships with both his mother and Clyde Tolson, his assistant director for the Bureau.

I do not think I would ever regard “J. EDGAR” as one of Eastwood’s best work. It had the potential to be a top-notch film. But a slightly incoherent script written by Dustin Lance Black prevented the movie from reaching its potential. One, the movie’s use of flashbacks started fine. But somewhere in the movie’s second half, this use fell flat. I suspect that my problem with the flashbacks was that Black’s script and Eastwood’s direction seemed inconsistent and slightly confusing.

Another problem I had with “J. EDGAR” was its focus on the Lindbergh Kidnapping Case. It was simply too much. Hoover reached the heights of his fame as the Bureau’s director, because of the manhunt for Midwestern criminals such as John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and Charles Floyd. I realize that this topic was also covered in Michael Mann’s 2009 crime drama,“PUBLIC ENEMIES”. But Eastwood and Black seemed determined to ignore the topic, aside from Hoover’s bouts of jealousy toward the agent that hunted down many of these criminals – Melvin Purvis. Instead, Eastwood and Black decided to focus a great deal on the Bureau’s participation in the Lindbergh case. Too much, if you want my opinion. The film never touched on the Bureau’s dealings or lack of with organized crime. I find this a pity, because one of the most memorable moments in Hoover’s career was his so-called “arrest” of gangster Louis “Lepke” Buchalter, a publicity stunt supported by columnist Walter Winchell.

Fortunately, “J. EDGAR” was not a complete loss. I must admit that despite its flaws, it was a solid and entertaining movie. Eastwood’s direction seemed to be at its best in scenes that featured anarchist Luigi Galleani’s attempted to assassinate Hoover’s boss, Mitchell Palmer with a mail bomb; Hoover’s meeting with Herbert Norman Schwarzkopf and Charles Lindbergh; a highly charged scene between Hoover and his mother regarding his sexual preference; and especially the scenes featuring Hoover’s relationship with Tolson. Most movie or television productions tend to portray the relationship between the two men with a slight tawdriness. Eastwood and Black’s portrayal of the Hoover-Tolson relationship struck me as surprisingly tasteful and compassionate – especially since other aspects of Hoover’s life and character was portrayed with less sympathy.

I must admit that Tom Stern’s cinematography was a solid piece of work, but it did not exactly blow my mind. And if I must be frank, I was not exactly enamored of the film’s slightly gray tone. I also felt slightly leery of the makeup created for Di Caprio, Arnie Hammer and Naomi Watts. The makeup did not seem effective in aging the three leads in the 1960s and 70s sequences. However, I was impressed by James J. Murakami’s production designs that conveyed the years between 1919 and 1972. I believe the re-creation of the early and mid 20th century would not have been complete without Deborah Hopper’s superb costume designs.

The biggest virtue of “J. EDGAR” turned out to be its cast. Once again, Leonardo Di Caprio rose to the occasion and gave a superb portrayal of a complex and some would say, difficult personality. As usual, Di Caprio managed to inject a good deal of sympathy and poignancy into a historical figure that has a negative reputation over the years. I had been impressed by Arnie Hammer’s solid portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in last year’s “THE SOCIAL NETWORK”. But he really outdid himself as Hoover’s right hand man, Clyde Tolson – especially in the scenes featuring the pair’s relationship. Judi Dench gave her usual solid performance as Hoover’s strong-willed mother, Anna Marie Hoover. But in the scene featuring Mrs. Hoover’s disapproval of her son’s sexual lifestyle, she was brilliant and slightly scary. Naomi Watts gave a solid and slightly melancholic performance as Hoover’s faithful secretary, Helen Gandy. “J. EDGAR” also featured solid support from the likes Josh Lucas as the introverted Charles Lindbergh, Dermot Mulroney as the ineffectual New Jersey State Police superintendent Herbert N. Schwarzkopf, Lea Thompson as Lela Rogers (Ginger’s mother) Geoff Pierson as the intense Mitchell Palmer and Jeffrey Donovan as Attorney General Robert Kennedy. However, I was a little confused by Donovan’s slightly exaggerated take on Kennedy’s Boston accent, considering that Donovan is also a native of Massachusetts.

I noticed that “J. EDGAR” did not earn enough to make a profit at the box office. In a way, I can see why. I feel that it was a solid movie that failed to live up to any potential it could have achieved – especially at the hands of a first-rate director like Clint Eastwood. But thanks to his direction, the movie’s production designs and a first-rate cast led by the superb Leonardo Di Caprio, “J. EDGAR” still proved to be a somewhat entertaining and solid film.

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