J Edgar is a dark portrait of a conflicted man, maybe too dark.
J Edgar is a dark portrait of
a conflicted man, maybe too dark.
dramas are hot right now thanks to Matthew
Weiner’s sublime Mad Men and Martin Scorsese’s Boardwalk Empire. So
with the current trend for all things retro chic it feels only right that one
of America’s original mad men should be given the silver screen treatment. Of course Hoover has had fleeting
appearances on screen, most recently in Michael
Mann’s Public Enemies, whereas this
film aims to be about his career but succeeds more as a deconstruction of the
man rather than the legacy he created.
Of course when man is shrouded in such secrecy a film of this ilk is
open to interpretation.
he nears the end of his career head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation J.
Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio)
recounts his rise to power. From
his dealings with the likes of the Lindbergh baby abduction and his close
relationship with his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) we begin to learn what made such a man tick. His insistence on taking crime
investigations to a scientific level by introducing finger printing techniques
and keeping phone taps on powerful political figures Hoover, a man who dealt in
secrets, begins to expose some of his own. Through the daunting shadow his mother Annie (Judi Dench) cast over him and the
affectionate relationship he shared with Special Agent Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) we begin to learn,
through his own words, just how J Edgar became the most powerful man in
of Hoover’s long tenure as head of the FBI, spanning from 1924 to 1977, he was
able to accumulate information on people to, supposedly, manipulate political
appointments and policy in the US. As such, nowadays Directors of the FBI can
only serve ten-year tenures, such was the information and power garnered by
Hoover’s reign. It is clear why
such a man would be ripe for a cinematic outing. He was, like director Clint
Eastwood in his prime, a man who rode into town to clean up the sorry mess. But as Hoover says in the opening of
the film “Even great men can be corrupted.”
the subject matter J Edgar is a bit of an enigma of a film. On the one hand it deals very broadly
with the man’s career, a kind of high-lights, or in some cases low-lights, of a
man so obsessed with making good he became seeped in his own backstabbing and
intrigue. This part of the film
stutters, never really allowing an engaging narrative to formulate, indeed such
is the way in which it’s shot and addressed you cannot help but wonder if J
Edgar would be more at home as a series akin to Mad Men or Boardwalk Empire.
the other hand when the film veers away from the ‘bigger picture’ and focuses
on Hoover’s relationships with those around him the film takes on a wonderfully
tragic and emotional core.
Dominated by his Lady Macbeth like mother Hoover is never allowed to
break free from what she and society expect of him. As such secrets, both his and those he uncovers on those in
power, become a bargaining chip to be used for and against him. When the film sporadically chooses to
include Hoover’s burgeoning homosexual relationship with Tolson you fall for
it. Swept up in the forbidden love
the two share, having all too often to settle for a formal façade of daily
lunch meetings where heated arguments about policy hide the true nature of
has of late been a bit of a hit or miss with his direction. J Edgar is the prime example of
managing to be both. For one thing
the visuals are wonderfully of the time, an almost black and white saturation which
perfectly represents Hoover’s outlook on the world. But it’s dark, not tonally but visually. It’s as if Eastwood watched The Godfather and said “yes, this is
what Hoover should be like, pitch black, under lit and moody”. That may have worked if someone had
told his director of photography Tom
Stern that we are going to need to actually see what’s going on. It is perhaps aiming for that nourish
chiaroscuro lighting, venetian blinds and all, but when you find yourself
squinting to read the expression on a character’s face you cannot help but feel
cheated out of what you’re missing.
with the film working best as a personal affair it is a relief that Eastwood
has, as ever, called in the cream of acting talents to flesh out his
story. Hammer gives a nice
chiselled turn as the one man willing to stand up to Hoover’s menace. Watts plays his obedient secretary
while acting as the nurturing mother with the poise that only Watts can. Dench is on wonderfully sumptuous form,
a soft-spoken tyrant of a mother making it easy to see where the man got his
darker traits. She quietly hisses
lines like “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil of a son” making her all
the more formidable as an antagonist.
As J Edgar DiCaprio is on typically transformative form. Playing the man through various stages
of his life, with the aid of great prosthetic work, you never for a moment see
anyone other than Hoover on screen.
Comfortable both in booming at his subordinates as he is sobbing in his
mother’s dress, ashamed of the truths he hides from the world. Had an actor we don’t hold in such high
regard delivered a performance of this level he would have been showered with
award nominations. It is to
DiCaprio’s credit that we have come to expect as much from him.
Edgar may be both a flawed character and film but when it works it’s great, a
personal voyage of discovery into the workings of a man driven by more than the
obvious patriotism. By the end you
find yourself caring deeply for J Edgar who, while he struggled to keep his
nation’s enemies at bay, ignored the dark facets that lurked within
himself. Compelling if