J. EDGAR—-dark-toned look at a dark-souled man. Clint Eastwood, directing, co-producing and writing the score, offers a 2011 peer at the moral monster who ran the FBI through (around & over) eight presidents. The unfunny joke about Law & Justice in America is that its #1 cop for 48 years did more damage to the country than all the people the Feds ever pursued put together.
Written by Dustin Lance Black, galvanized by another remarkable submersion into character from Leonardo DiCaprio, it’s a continually interesting 137 minutes, but, like the cross-purposed (cross a lot of things) protagonist it’s ensnared by ambition and hounded by judgment calls. Black’s script was heavily criticized for its structure, arranged through flashbacks, leaving out too much (it would have worked better as a mini-series) and passing too lightly over what it included. Clint’s direction was faulted for playing it safe with potential dramatic fireworks and for going shades too grey and gloomy with a desaturated visual palette. Apart from general praise for the leading man, many critics seemed unduly irritated that Eastwood gave them merely a pretty good movie and not a great one.
Hours spent in company with an aesthetically icky and charm-repugnant personality (Hitler, Stalin, Napoleon come to mind), aligned with a bleak parade of lethal historical mischief makes for a hard entertainment sell from the get-go. When it’s a figure whose deeds and impact left so many segments of society grievously wounded—each piece a major story in itself—it’s next to impossible not to somewhat frustrate viewers who may have their own emotionally or intellectually resonant stake in a particular facet. A human-can-of-worms like Hoover?—take your pick: conflicted sexuality, Civil Rights, political repression, crime adventure, blackmail, a vast gallery of beloved and/or hated public figures. *
“I don’t need to tell you that, what determines a man’s legacy is often what isn’t seen.”
Some of the quick portraits of the many supporting characters hit the target, others glance off. You’re not going to get less than top-drawer effort from Naomi Watts (the quietly fervent, curiously loyal lifelong secretary) or Judi Dench (the suffocating mama despairing of “daffodils“), even if the script leaves them little to go on. Armie Hammer does quite well as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s urbane and catty ‘special friend’. Critics lamely spent more time making wet hay with how they didn’t like the old-age makeup applied on Hammer than they did giving the actor his due for subtle layers of complexity to what could have been easy camp.**
DiCaprio gets the voice, the body language and the manner down flawlessly, and as for harnessing the demon behind the drive, he nails it literally in the eyes by beautifully sketching the panicky fear of discovery lurking behind the bully’s brusque masquerade. If the United States has some patron saint watching over us, you’d hope she might help out by delivering us from phonies, frauds and fakirs like the moralizing misfit who did his level best to scour the Republic of freedom. Granted, he was Hell-on-heels when it came to fingerprints (while making sure to hide his own pinky smudges). What a con-job!
Produced for 35,000,000, it arrested a tame take of $84,600,000. With Josh Lucas, Dermot Mulroney, Damon Herriman, Jeffrey Donovan (not too good a choice as Bobby Kennedy), Ed Westwick, Zach Grenier, Ken Howard, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson.
* This thoughtful, by necessity incomplete biopic is hamstrung by the ownership of accuracy that always beleaguers movies about, for example, the Vietnam War: a traumatic passage of history, multidimensional, confused by misinformation, victims galore on all sides, without a clean conclusion. Platoon is The Truth for some, for others it’s The Green Berets. Historians still can’t agree on why Rome fell: is it a mystery that TV-fed multitudes don’t know whether to believe Oliver Stone or John Wayne?
** One of the countless individuals plagued by Hoover’s scrutiny/persecution over Communist paranoia was the actor’s great-great grandfather, Armand Hammer. Armie is quoted as saying he took the role to get some family revenge.
Beyond that fine actor’s payback, at least one more good thing came out of Hoover’s malicious reign—the reassuringly stirring theme music to the old TV series, The F.B.I. (included below for the boomer-warming, Red-baiting helluvit). See also the fun fiction of 1959s The FBI Story, whose case-load you’ll find on this site’s handy index: J.Edgar would be proud as a brontosaurus—but then the sick old reptile would demand I cut my hair. And I’m not loaning my frilly lace nightgown to just any old G-Man with a badge…