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J Edgar Brings the Best Out of DiCaprio, But Movie Is Bland

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Warner Bros., 2011

It seems like no one wants to make the days of gangsters and/or G-men exciting anymore, except for maybe HBO’s Boardwalk Empire, hitting its stride in its second season.  In 2009, the usually-brilliant Michael Mann gave us Public Enemies, which had incredible star-wattage but almost zero excitement.  There must be some collective thought nowadays that you can’t treat a historical figure with imagination anymore, that the criticism of “that didn’t happen” trumps “making the movie engrossing.”

The days of J. Edgar Hoover, from his time as a director of the “Bureau of Investigation” in 1924 to his ascent as director of the FBI in 1935 spanning all the way to 1972, transcend one mere period in time.  What do you focus on in a career that spans 6 different decades?  In the early nineties, a movie about J. Edgar Hoover would have probably hit the 3-hour mark.  Today, everything seems to be slimmed down, and we get a little over 2 hours.  Considering how much ground we have to cover to get to know Hoover as the man behind such an influential law and order institution as the FBI, we needed the epic treatment.  We need excitement to bring us through that epic treatment.  J. Edgar is a truncated look at a controversial figure, and much too even-handed and unfocused to be a classic.

In J. Edgar, we see the typical biopic trappings of “this happened, then this happened.”  Although director Clint Eastwood apparently wants to jump around in time with the narrative, which makes things kind of confusing.  We see J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, who is great) in his early days of the Bureau of Investigation, earning his name deporting and making arrests of Bolshevik supporters and sympathizers, an illegal act that sends his boss to the unemployment line and makes way for Hoover’s ascent to the new FBI.

Hoover hires pretty secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) to be his head secretary, and even asks her to marry him early on.  But Gandy says she’s only interested in work, not marriage.  Also hired is Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), a man who has been rumored to be Hoover’s gay lover by some, and in this movie the perspective is that Hoover hires the unqualified Tolson because of some attraction he doesn’t quite understand.

Hoover also has some mommy issues, as his mother Annie (Judi Dench) is a strict, demanding, God-fearing woman that the film suggests was a tremendous influence on Hoover and his actions, doing things for the greater good even if they are illegal.  The quiet demands of a mother and her grown son suggest a much tougher time of rule when he was a kid, and the scenes between he and his mother are pretty fantastic.  They could have been accentuated by a better movie.

We see Hoover’s days of the 1930’s, trying to take down Dillinger and Capone and all the gangsters of the day, although this is another section of the movie that is just kind of summarized.  The main event in J. Edgar is the Lindbergh Baby Kidnapping (with Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh), although the movie might have just been better to focus on the way that case changed the FBI and how we look at evidence today.  And this is where the movie is good, but it goes away from this case to other things, then reintroduces the case later, then leaves again, and comes back.  The great Stephen Root plays Arthur Koehler, a specialist in wood who helps track down the prime suspect of the Lindbergh case.

We see some of his paranoid, abuse-of-power days too.  There are hints he has proof of Eleanor Roosevelt’s lesbian affairs, a tape involving John F. Kennedy and an indiscretion with a communist lover that Hoover tries to blackmail Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) with, an attempt to undermine Martin Luther King’s acceptance of the Nobel Peace Prize, but these things aren’t done with the appropriate salaciousness that would make his actions seem more exciting, or more wrong in his abuse of power.  They’re just kind of…there.  So the most controversial aspect of Hoover’s FBI days, his illegal use of wire taps and keeping secret files on people, kind of dusted under the rug as minor details.  That could have been a fun movie, speculating on what files on famous figures Hoover might have had, but this film is more interested in just keeping to the straightforward, “well we don’t know exactly, but here’s sort of what happened, and we don’t want to be called out for being too sensational.”

It’s amazing to me that after Hoover asks Gandy to marry him and is turned down, that the potential romance or the hope for one completely dies out.  After Gandy refuses the proposal, she appears in the picture a few more times, never seeming to be all that important, with no sexual tension or regret from either party.  The movie does focus on the odd relationship between he and Tolson, which has been dissected by many a scholar but no one really knows what went down.  I’ll say this, the aging makeup in this movie is pretty bad.  Hammer’s in particular looks comical.

However, what we have here is Leonardo DiCaprio continuing to show why he is our number-one movie star right now, a guy who is handsome and does big pictures, but takes the acting craft seriously and brings immediate credibility to any picture he makes.  While director Christopher Nolan shot to the moon with The Dark Knight, and people started wanting to see his movies based on his name, I don’t think Inception could have been the huge hit it was last year without DiCaprio.  Without him, you would have had this weird-looking trailer for a sci-fi movie that would have been DOA with lesser stars.  His turn as Hoover should be Oscar-worthy, even if the movie he is in is not.  There are times when actors just blend so well into their part, that you don’t think of them as the actor anymore but that person.  DiCaprio pulls that off here.

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