[First published at Geek for e on November 11, 2011. And while it was posted by another writer, that’s my baby. Unless Matt’s past as a “gal brought up just outside the Beltway” is catching up with him. Ah – if you don’t tell anyone, neither will I.]
A brash young upstart rising up the Government ladder thanks to a little bit of skill and a whole lot of being at the right place at the right time. Someone who liked to throw on a pretty frock every now and then, and lived with a dashing young man amid much speculation. A touch insecure, lived with Mommy for way too long, but managed to hide most personal foibles under a thick cloud of Type A…. Oh, enough about me in my twenties, let’s get on with the review. Clint Eastwood’s look at J. Edgar Hoover is one that skims the span of his life and shows not a cross-dressing laughingstock or a larger than life hero, but a man, the good, bad and sometimes downright ugly. It’s not the most organized movie ever made, but it’s an interesting look at a powerful man, and his efforts to create one of the most powerful Bureaus in the United States.
Hoover is a legend in DC, and his tenure as the director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is legendary for what it accomplished and it’s dictatorial oppression. How true is J. Edgar? Well, depends on who you’re asking. Did he really live with Tolson for decades? A’yup. Did he never marry? A’yup. Was he a huge bully that was feared more for what people thought he had on them and not necessarily what he actually knew? Seems so. But did he cross dress? Most scholars today think not, and I’ve got to admit that it seems a bit off that someone so paranoid would do something that would be so blackmail-worthy. And what about schtupping Dorothy Lamour? Hmm, possible; she never did deny it. I find it hard to believe that this J. Edgar Hoover could be sexual at all. He had his panties in such a Type A twist they’d probably be impossible for anyone to remove, male or female. But it’s easy to see that this man needed companionship in his life, even though his emotionally powerful and toxic mother never equipped him with the adequate tools to gain and keep friendships. It had me sad for the man that he could have been. There’s a true brilliance to Hoover; his fingerprint catalogue and forensics lab bear witness to that. Sadly, his inner demons held sway and what good he accomplished is vastly overshadowed by the harassment and illegal activities that mar his tenure. And that’s all here in J. Edgar.
As a gal brought up just outside the Beltway, it’s easy to see that Eastwood did his research. It was fun to see a recreated Garfinckel’s, the high-end store where anyone who was anyone got their suits made…before they went bankrupt in the 90s. Shots of the Hoover building (J. Edgar, not Herbert; that’s Commerce) and the Library of Congress give a realistic feel to the story. There’s also an effortless flow of information in this movie that can only come from a ton of info and a solid knowledge of the truth, rumor and fiction of the people and times. Set design and art direction are on par with Mad Men, and maybe a bit better because of the many different decades covered in this film. And the make up? Wow. As big of a horror junkie as I am, I’m calling the Oscar race for Best Makeup early; J. Edgar’s makeup crew (Alessandro Bertolazzi, Sian Grigg, Duncan Jarman, et al.) deserve more than just a round of applause for the detailed, flawless work they’ve done on this film.
As for the performances, they’re stellar. DiCaprio gets to dig in like he hasn’t really been able to do since What’s Eating Gilbert Grape. It’s not an over the top performance, instead it’s just the right amount of braggadocio for the role. For Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar shows that what you’ve heard about bullies is true; they’re scared little people who rant and rave because of their deep-seated feelings of insecurity. This film shows Hoover as a man who can’t simply let his brilliance shine, he’s got to force everyone to bow down to him because if he doesn’t he fears losing it all. Naomi Watts as Hoover’s executive assistant Helen Gandy is a woman of softness and steel, and Watts’ performance is quietly brilliant. So is Judi Dench’s Annie Hoover. Dench breathes life into an uncomfortable, uncomforting woman who seemingly drove her brilliant son Edgar into a self-loathing he could never escape from. What Dench can do with a glance or a few words is magic, and she makes it look as simple as breathing.
Eastwood likes to move from place to place, time period to time period in his films. This film falls in line with movies like Mystic River and Letters from Iwo Jima in that respect. J. Edgar cuts in and out of the beginning, middle and end of Hoover’s career, along with brief scenes of his youth. There’s a whole lot to absorb here, and people that don’t know much about Hoover may at times feel like they’re running along behind the story. As exciting as it must have been in the early years of the FBI, J. Edgar’s script glances off more intriguing criminal matters and focuses on the Lindbergh kidnapping case. Yeah, this case rewrote the law for the FBI, but it doesn’t make for an exciting plot. And because almost everything that Hoover had on people was shredded by the intrepid Ms. Gandy at his death, there are no big reveals. This puts the focus of the film on Hoover’s obsession with the Bureau and his relationships with his mother, Gandy and his #2 man, Clyde Tolson (played with a quiet devotion by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer).
J. Edgar joins the ranks of this year’s “What If” biographical films like Anonymous and The Rum Diary (along with a slew of “based on” films like A Dangerous Method, The Iron Lady and My Week with Marilyn), and it stands well beside ‘em. You may find yourself chuckling at times while watching J. Edgar, and that’s okay. Hoover was never Cool Lester Smooth, and he didn’t seem to give too much of a damn about that. But in J. Edgar his off-putting ways are a glimpse of his humanity peeking out from a powerful, driven, brilliant but flawed man.