Sunday, November 13, 2011

"J. Edgar" Review

While I was watching Director Clint Eastwood's J.Edgar, a film about the life of J.Edgar Hoover, the FBI's first director, I was reminded of the phrase that power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Did Hoover abuse his power? Yes. But while some of his actions crossed the constitutional line of legality, he was not a black and white villain. Some of his actions protected the United States and forced crime detection into the twentieth century.

J. Edgar starts out in the sixties with FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictating his memoirs to young FBI agents. The movie then flashes back to Hoover when he was an investigator for the U.S. Attorney General where the government was fighting bomb planting Communists. The film then flashes forward and backwards multiple times. We see his involvement with the Lindbergh kidnapping case. We see him build up the FBI and bring modern science into the field of crime detection. There are moments dealing with Attorney General Bobby Kennedy. Then there are the personal moments. We see his relations with his mother Anna, (Judi Dench); his personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)

What the film drives home is that Hoover initially starts out with good intentions that go bad. He's fighting Communists who want to violently overthrow the United States government. But while his desire to build a modern and professional crime fighting law enforcement agency is commendable, it conflicts with his totalitarian paranoia. It's that fear of what he perceives as un-American that causes him to plant lies about Martin Luther King, Jr., spy on personal enemies and keep dirt on presidents in his files.

The performances are all excellent. Naomi Watts' Helen is portrait of a twentieth century woman. Her Helen Gandy has an inner strength. Judi Dench is the greatest actress of our time. She doesn't get many scenes but in her short time on the screen she conveys her total loyalty to J. Edgar. Armie Hammer comes from a rich and elite background. He is the great grandson of oil tycoon Armand Hammer. But he now has earned applause for his portrayal as Tolson, first as a young FBI recruit who makes Hoover sweat then as the much older agent. Then there is Leonardo DiCaprio. His Hoover is sanctimonious, paranoid and ambitious.

While the performances are fine, J. Edgar has major flaws. You see Hoover's life was shrouded in mystery. For example, there were rumors of Hoover's cross dressing and alleged homosexuality with Tolson his alleged lover. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) can't commit to dramatic ideas like Hoover was gay. They strongly hint at it but there's no passion between Hoover and Tolson. Another problem with the film is that it dwells way too much time on the Lindbergh kidnapping. Yeah, that case helped to build the FBI with funding from Congress. But the FBI came into noteriety from its fight with Depression era bank robbers. More could have been done with Hoover's blackmailing ability to intimidate presidents.

Criticizing Clint Eastwood is one of the last things I want to do. After all the man is a legendary filmmaker. But his direction is colorless like this film. First, let me ask Eastwood to stop writing the musical scores for his movies. Don't get me wrong, the man can write music. But surprisingly his music doesn't match the movie. His score for this film is romantic with piano accompanied by strings. But his movie is not a love story. I meant it could have been a romance if it went all in on the idea that Hoover was gay and loved Tolson. The better score for a story about a man who was the nations' top cop and was at times corrupt would be one with American themes but at times with touches of clear sarcasm. Late composer Shostakovich comes to mind when throwing in sarcasm in music.

But back to Eastwood's direction of J. Edgar. To demonstrate how dry this movie is, there's a scene where Hoover is in Attorney General Bobby Kennedy's office. There's a discussion on who the FBI should be investigating. Hoover wants to investigate a personal enemy. Kennedy doesn't agree. Hoover quietly throws out that he has evidence that Kennedy's brother, President John F. Kennedy had an affair. Basically, Hoover is blackmailing the President. The problem is that Hoover throws it out like he's talking about the weather. This scene required more dialogue with punch. It required emotion. Instead the scene fizzles.

At the end of the credits, there's a thanks to the FBI for their assistance in the making of J. Edgar. Interesting, since this film is an unflattering view of a deeply imperfect man. J. Edgar is also like its subject. Professional, but flawed. The grade is B -.

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