Review: J. Edgar

Resolve. Courage. Will. These are but a few of the adjectives J. Edgar Hoover might have fancied for himself and his work at the Federal Bureau of Investigations for nearly half a century. Though the eight presidents that presided throughout the same 48 years may have been elected to the highest office in the land, it was truly Hoover who had the power in Washington. Mountains of confidential files about every high ranking official in America were under the watchful eye of Hoover, and upon his death, all of those files were eradicated. The most interesting secrets, however, pertained to Hoover himself. Be it his steadfast devotion to his mother, or his suppressed feelings for his second in command, Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s inner life was most fascinating of all. All of this was begging to be made into a film about Hoover, and though Clint Eastwood’s assured hand guides J. Edgar into interesting territory, the film does not quite cohere as a narrative whole.

Jumping back and forth in time, J. Edgar is told through the man’s subjective viewpoint on history, beginning in the 1970’s when he is at the height of his power, and looking back to when he began his career in law enforcement.  This narrative structure actually serves the film quite well. To see the 20th century through the eyes of one of its most controversial figures provides for occasionally compelling cinema, as Hoover tries to find reasons for legitimizing many of his decisions, be they legal or illegal. However, the film spends much of its time on two early cases in Hoover’s life, the eradication of Bolshevik rebels in America in the 1920’s, and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. Of course, these cases are vital in establishing Hoover’s creed of law, as well as the steps he took in legitimizing the F.B.I., but the film spends a bit too much time on them.

The concerns the film has with Hoover’s private life are much more fascinating, and this is where Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance truly shines, showing us the vulnerable puppy inside the ruthless bulldog. DiCaprio has been particularly excellent at showing his his protagonists’ vulnerabilities in the past, but with a character as complex as Hoover, he brings true texture and nuance to his performance. A glance from the eyes or a tilt from the head tell us far more about Hoover than any patriotic line of dialogue he might spit out at a moment’s notice. Among these nuanced moments is a scene among the finest in DiCaprio’s career, but I’ll keep away from revealing its content. Clyde Tolson, as played with slightly less subtlety by Armie Hammer, remains by Hoover’s side throughout much of the film, and many of the scenes between the two men are the best of what the film has to offer. A tension between both men remains palpable, but save for a few key moments, the film never really makes a definitive decision about the true nature of the relationship between both men.

As a work of cinema, J. Edgar actually has a good deal going for it. Working with his typically desaturated color palette, Eastwood’s film is nearly in black and white, yet retains enough color to give us an added dimension. This is perhaps much like Hoover himself, whom Americans saw in black and white terms, yet the man was clearly more complex in private than he ever allowed himself to be in public. Eastwood’s shooting style is also noteworthy here, making excellent use of handheld when needed, but oftentimes resorts to an even frame, reflective of Hoover’s overall resilience. Despite its pacing issues and narrative missteps, J. Edgar actually features some impressive editing in its scene to scene transitions. Where most films shifting from the past to present might rely on sound bridges to effectively marry the past and present, J. Edgar favors the affinity of its locations to travel in time. This is conveyed by match cutting through either similar shot compositions or through matching on action. For instance, as one scene ends with Hoover and Tolson getting on an elevator in 1970’s, the next scene begins with the two men getting off the same elevator in the 1930’s. Similarly, Hoover looks out at President Kennedy’s inauguration on his balcony in one scene, and then goes back inside following President Nixon’s inauguration. These transitions are terrific, allowing us to enter Hoover’s mind as he remembers the past.

The biggest issue with J. Edgar is that for all of its fascinating material, there isn’t quite a focus on the narrative as a whole. The film feels to episodic at times, and not all of the elements come together by the end of the film to provide us with a complete portrait of the man. There are elements of narrative concerning Hoover’s relationship with Tolson, as well as his rise in power, but not enough conflict to maintain consistent interest. Nevertheless, J. Edgar maintains its own sense of dignity and strength coming from one of America’s most distinguished filmmakers, and thankfully centers on the unquestionable power of DiCaprio’s performance. It is through his eyes that we see the true Hoover for what he was, a man who, despite his knowledge of the identity of every man in America, could never come to terms with his own.

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~ by romancinema on November 19, 2011.

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