Thursday, December 1, 2011

Investigating J. EDGAR

J. EDGAR Review:

- The big, important films of Clint Eastwood have certainly been a mixed bag. The man has a knack for finding intriguing subject matter to adapt for the screen, but Eastwood's somber, serious side can at times produce some pretty dull and boring movies. Personally, I love Eastwood as an actor in and director of pulpy Western, action and crime films. In terms of his directorial efforts, I'm partial to the contemplative yet rugged badassery of films like Unforgiven and Gran Torino. On the other end of the spectrum, I've found movies like Invictus to be dry and plodding. Luckily, Eastwood's latest effort - J. EDGAR - is an intriguing, sprawling tale that has some very interesting insights into America's recent past. It works as a fascinating look at the formation of the FBI and the rise of national law enforcement. At the same time, it's also an insightful look at the man behind the curtain - J. Edgar Hoover. Featuring a number of strong performances from an all-star cast, this one is definitely worth checking out if you have an interest in Cold War-era American history.

The film follows J. Edgar Hoover from the time he was a young twenty-something in the late 1910's, paranoid about what he believed was the impending Bolshevik invasion, to his final days, coinciding with the beginnings of the Nixon administration. The film flashes back between two primary periods - Hoover as a younger man, in the early days of the FBI in the 20's and 30's, and as an older man in the 60's and early 70's.

Anchoring the film - and having to sell Hoover as both a younger and older man - is Leonardo DiCaprio. At first, DiCaprio's take on the legendary figure is a bit jarring - with a thick, old-timey accent and a puffed-up, hangdog demeanor, DiCaprio comes off as a bit cartoonish and over-the-top. Plus, Eastwood is shooting the film in his usual minimalist, straightforward manner - making the movie's larger-than-life performances stand out a bit more than they might have in a more stylized film. Sadly, the old-age makeup used here is a bit of a distraction, in that in a couple of cases it just doesn't look natural at all. Hoover-as-old-man is workable, even if it definitely feels a bit "off" from a visual standpoint. But some of the other key characters - most notably Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's right-hand-man and confidante - look downright grotesque in their old-age makeup. Indeed, many portions of the movie take on a seemingly unintentionally campy - and like I said, grotesque - quality, because of just how odd the make-up looks.

But, the performances are so strong overall that I was able to look past the wax-figure makeup and still find a lot of enjoyment from the stellar work of DiCaprio, Hammer, Naomi Watts, and the rest of the film's superb cast. DiCaprio is outwardly a bit goofy as Hoover, but inwardly, there's some real depth to his portrayal. He paints Hoover as an obsessed crusader hellbent on protecting the United States from communists, insurgents, and subversives. He's also a man who prides himself on having all the information, and therefore all the power. He maintains extensive files on those who he perceives as potential threats - including every sitting president in the Oval Office during his tenure as head of the FBI. He brings science, criminology, and forensics into law enforcement in a way that they'd never been utilized before. He builds up the FBI, from nothing, into a force to be reckoned with. And yet, Hoover is a man who has secrets of his own. Underneath his outwardly rigid, puritanical personality, Hoover struggles with his identity. As a grown man, he lives with his aging mother (Judi Dench), and has a strange, codependent relationship with her. Some of that overlaps with his struggles with sexual identity. Hoover shares an unspoken bond with his FBI hire Clyde Tolson, but the two continually dance around their shared attraction for each other. Their relationship is never acknowledged publicly, and even privately the two can barely put their feelings into words - but over time, it seems, people caught on to the fact that there was a bond between the two men that went beyond friendship. All of this adds up to quite the character study, and DiCaprio does a fine job of exploring all of the different aspects of Hoover. Hammer is excellent as Tolson. And Naomi Watts is also very good as Hoover's loyal secretary Helen. The film is a great showcase for its actors. If only they didn't look so silly in their makeup.

Most fascinating, however, may be the fact that Hoover's longevity makes him a great focal point for a sprawling look at America in the 20th century. J. Edgar does a great job of showing us America's evolution as it progressed from World War I and into a new era of spies, conspiracy, and perceived threat from within. We see the rise of organized crime, the birth of national celebrities like Charles Lindbergh, and the different facets of the Civil Rights movement. And it's there in the 60's, a time we think of as a boon for social change and progressivism, that we see how far gone Hoover was - stuck in a world of black and white, good and evil. Indeed, he viewed Martin Luthor King Jr. less as an agent of cultural change and more as a dangerous radical. And again, viewing Hoover's paranoia through the lense of his own issues - the fact that he himself was sort of a self-hating "subversive" - well, it's a fascinating study of both psychology and American cultural history.

I thought the movie featured a smart, well-structured script (though it perhaps goes on a little too long), and some outstanding performances. I loved the character study and the insightful, eye-opening look at American history and the formation of the FBI. Though the film skips over some key periods of Hoover's life, the flashback/flashforward structure is utilized well. I did feel that Eastwood's directorial style sometimes felt like a mismatch for the scope and tone of the script - sometimes causing that grotesque, theater-of-the-absurd effect during some of the movie's more out-there scenes. I also have to call out the makeup as being unnecessarilly distracting in the case of key characters. All that said, J. Edgar is one of Eastwood's better movies in a while, and it's well worth checking out for anyone who's had an interest in the subject matter.

My Grade: B+

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