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J. Edgar
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by Peter Sobczynski

"Kind Of A Drag"
2 stars

Throughout his directorial career (which now seems to have superseded his previous position as one of Hollywood's most durable and popular stars), Clint Eastwood has made some films that have been brilliant (such as "The Outlaw Josey Wales," "Bronco Billy" and "Unforgiven," to name just a few), some that have been terrible (while I recognize that I am in the minority in finding the likes of "Mystic River" and "Gran Torino" to be absurdly overrated, I doubt that few people other than Dave Kehr would even attempt to offer up a defense for such duds as "The Rookie" and "Blood Work") and some oddities that, while perhaps not entirely successful, have at least been intriguing experiments that have allowed him to spread his wings as a filmmaker (including such recent items as Japanese perspective WW II war epic "Letters from Iwo Jima," the post-apartheid drama "Invictus" and the somber paranormal exploration "Hereafter"). However, whether the end results are good or bad, they have always been presented in a strong and straightforward manner that suggested that Eastwood knew exactly what kind of story he wanted to tell and, right or wrong, exactly how he wanted to tell it. While there are many problems to be had with his latest effort, "J. Edgar," the biggest flaw is that I never got the sense that Eastwood had any firm grasp on what he wanted to say about the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial founder and longtime director of the FBI, or how he wanted to say it. As a result, what should have been a fascinating film turns out to be a mess and while it may not be the worst thing that Eastwood has done as a director, it is definitely among the most frustrating.

The film opens as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), deciding that "It's time this generation knows my side of the story," begins to recount his life story chronicling his rise through the ranks from being just another lowly member of the law enforcement community to the first director of the F.B.I. and one of the most powerful and feared men in America until his death in 1972. When we first see him, he is just another ambitious Justice Department agent when he catches the eye of department head Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) and becomes an important member of Palmer's task force devoted to stamping out the threat of socialism in America that had led to a series of anarchist bombings targeting key government officials. Thanks in no small part to Hoover's efforts, avowed anarchist Emma Goldman is deported and hundreds of alleged socialists are swept up in what would become known as the "Palmer Raids" but when questions about their legality sprung up, Palmer would be forced out of office and Hoover would eventually be put in charge. A man obsessed with accumulating and wielding power, Hoover would set about remaking the department so that it would answerable to no one beyond the attorney general and would push for such innovations as a national fingerprint database and wide powers in regards to wiretaps in order to combat crime and gather up enough information against enemies both real and imagined (including Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King) over the decades to ensure that no one would dare challenge his position or his methods.

The irony, of course, as would begin to be revealed in the years after his death in 1972, is that Hoover himself may have been keeping just as many potentially devastating secrets as any of his enemies. Raised by a domineering mother (Judi Dench), Hoover, according to the film, does not seem to have had a single normal or fulfilling relationship with a woman in his entire life. While still working under palmer, he is introduced to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a new recruit in the department secretarial pool and after a couple of half-hearted dates--one to the Library of Congress so that he can demonstrate the efficiency of the data retrieval system that he helped set up--he proposes marriage to her and when she quite sensibly refuses, he hires her to be his secretary, a position that she would hold for the rest of his life. Outside of a couple of other alleged brief flirtations, one with Dorothy Lamour and one with the mother of Ginger Rogers, he was never known to have been with any other women and certainly never married. On the other hand, he did have a long-standing "friendship" with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a rising young attorney who would become an associate director of the FBI and, it was rumored, Hoover's secret lover. Of course, the film plays a little coy in regards to these details--although it all but says that Tolson was gay, it never shows the two of them in an intimate moment aside from one bit that doesn't go well when Tolson kisses Hoover. On the other hand, the film does show them as being virtually inseparable throughout their lives together and reminds us at the end the Tolson was Hoover's sole heir and when he died, he would be buried near Hoover's own plot. In addition, the film also privileges viewers with a moment that corresponds to more recent rumors that have suggested that Hoover was a cross-dresser by showing him putting on his late mother's dress and pearls.

Because it would be nearly impossible to tell the full and complete story of the life and career of someone as controversial as J. Edgar Hoover within the confines of an ordinary feature film running time, anyone trying to make a movie about him has to choose from one of any number of potential approaches. They could choose to do a grand and panoramic version that lightly touches on key events in order to show how he changed and adapted with the times (or failed to do so) as was done in "Hoffa" or as Eastwood himself did with his Charlie Parker biopic "Bird." They could choose to train the focus on only a few key years in Hoover's life along the lines of "The Aviator" or what Black himself did in transforming the life of activist Harvey Milk into his award-winning screenplay for "Milk." They could pick one of the cases that he worked on, such as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and use that as a way to show how he helped shape modern law enforcement techniques both for good and for ill. If they so desired, they could focus solely on the homosexual material and transform his story into a sort of true-life version of "Brokeback Mountain" to illustrate the ways in which his own forced repression may have had repercussions on countless other Americans over the years who had their own rights infringed upon throughout the years because of one man in power who was nevertheless uncomfortable with who he was. They could have even taken a page from Oliver Stone and mixed fact and fiction together into the kind of audacious blend that might not have passed the smell test with historians but which might have paradoxically come closest to getting at the inner truth of a man who was bot as public and as private as a person could possibly be.

The chief problem with "J. Edgar," however, is that instead of focusing on one of these approaches as a way of telling Hoover's story, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black has instead chosen to employ all of them at various points and the result is a seriously confused mashup of ideas that never pull together into a satisfying whole. You get the sense while watching it that Black never had a clear idea of how he wanted to tell Hoover's story when he sat down to write it and decided instead to randomly change approaches every few scenes in the hopes that he would eventually hit upon one that would work for him all the way through and he would then go back and rewrite everything else to fit that particular approach. Considering the essentially unnecessary nature of the biography framework, it seems as though Eastwood and Black initially planned on the panoramic approach but quickly discovered that it wouldn't work since part of the point about Hoover is that he refused to change in the face of the shifting sands of time and public opinion and instead of junking the framing device decided to use it as a convenient laundry line upon which to hang the other approaches.

Instead of merely focusing on a few key years and events, the film keeps pulling away from them just when they are beginning to get interesting and as a result, a lot of plot points that you expect to be explored in depth are left dangling; after one confrontation between Hoover and Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) involving a sex tape, the Kennedys are summarily dropped and after setting up Hoover's hatred of Martin Luther King and the desperate lengths he goes to in order to smear him, that plot thread is haphazardly resolved by a quick clip of King's death in the middle of a montage about civil unrest. (The King section is especially embarrassing because it just happens to be the one time when the department stenographer sent in to take down Hoover's words for his biography happens to be African-American.) The "Brokeback Mountain" take might have been interesting but based on the few scenes that even vaguely allude to homosexuality, it is clear that Eastwood has no burning interest in such a take and might well have avoided it entirely if that viewpoint had not been so inextricably entwined with today's public perception of Hoover--during the bit in which Hoover puts on his mother's dress, you can practically hear Eastwood gritting his teeth behind the camera while going through the expected motions.

As for the wild, no-holds-barred approach that someone like Oliver Stone, for good or ill, might have taken, that was never going to happen because as a filmmaker, Eastwood is, for good or ill, a classicist of the first order and it is ridiculous to expect him to suddenly let his freak flag fly at this late date. That said, the filmmaking style that he has developed over the years has never felt quite as ossified than it does here. He has always preferred a relaxed narrative pace, even for his more action-oriented endeavors, and while that has often come as a blessed relief in contrast to most contemporary films that indulge in frenetic pacing and rapid-fire editing even when such things are patently unnecessary, it only serves to drag the proceedings to a halt this time around and since the scenes themselves don't really add up to much of anything, the film often gives off the disconcerting feeling of taking virtually forever to get virtually nowhere. Additionally, his preference for a low-level lighting scheme whenever possible is taken to its absurd extreme here with several sequences coming across as so dimly lit that it makes the simple act of watching the film into an absolute chore. (I happened to see the film under the best possible circumstances, in a screening room with everything perfectly calibrated and it was at time difficult to watch--God only knows what it will look like at a multiplex in which such concerns are deemed less important than luring patrons to the snack bar.) Even Eastwood's usual gift with working with actors seems to have betrayed him this time around. As Hoover, DiCaprio is okay but his is a one-note performance that at time sounds a little too much like his admittedly impressive work as Howard Hughes in "The Aviator" for its own good. As for Watts and Hammer, they are both good actors whose work is undermined by roles that simply don't give them very much to work with--it is especially disappointing that Watts' potentially fascinating character as the other keeper of Hoover's secrets is largely pushed to the side--and all three of them are pretty much done in by the distracting and unconvincing old-age makeup they are forced to don for the later period scenes; you keep waiting for the Starchild from "2001" to make an appearance as well.

"J. Edgar" is ambitious, I suppose, and Eastwood deserves some credit for using his clout to push such a production through in the first place, especially considering the fact that the chances of it becoming a big box-office success are presumably nil. Sadly, there was never a single moment in which I felt any understanding as to what it was about Hoover and his story that made him want to make such an effort in the first place. In the end, "J. Edgar" feels less like the sweeping historical drama that it should have been and more like the kind of anonymous boilerplate production that a director sometimes makes just to simply keep themselves busy. If this were just a standard-issue cop drama, that wouldn't be that big of a problem but even Hoover's biggest critics and detractors would have to admit that any movie about his life and work deserved a little more effort than is demonstrated here.

link directly to this review at https://www.hollywoodbitchslap.com/review.php?movie=22647&reviewer=389
originally posted: 11/08/11 23:29:52
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User Comments

12/02/15 1800suckmydick i can haz oskar nao 1 stars
11/01/13 Monday Morning Worst makeup I've ever seen in a movie, especially on Armie Hammer's "old man." 4 stars
6/08/12 Monday Morning Btwn this and "Aviator" - does DiCaprio keep losing bets to be in these sucky, dark movies. 2 stars
11/17/11 Mike Groesbeck lethargic to the point of unconsciousness 2 stars
11/16/11 Steve Capell The character development seemed forced and not real. 2 stars
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  09-Nov-2011 (R)
  DVD: 21-Feb-2012


  DVD: 21-Feb-2012

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