Music Feature

Film Review: J. Edgar

by Piers Marchant
Leo DiCaprio seeks his inner paranoid nutcase.
j.edgar_1

Dir. Clint Eastwood
Score: 6.5

If the ultimate purpose of the bio-pic is to shed some illuminating light on a shadowy public figure, what in the hell do you with a man so wrapped up in his own image and legend that he dedicated most of his career to obfuscating the truth, while keeping tabs on anyone that might say otherwise? Clint Eastwood's interesting solution is to let J. Edgar Hoover tell his own tall tale, all the while debunking his fabrications as a way to show the conflicts of interest in the heart of his inner-most depths.

In his ongoing quest to play the most notorious American icons of the 20th Century, Leo DiCaprio takes on the heavy chore of recreating the former head of the F.B.I., and the very figurehead of paranoid narcissism. Given DiCaprio's penchant for attempting a scale of roles that can go beyond him (see Shelter Island or Revolutionary Road), you have every right to be worried, but, instead, he turns in some of his finest work. If he doesn't summon the entire depth of Hoover's boundless eccentricity, deep sexual repression, and stultifying ego, he certainly gives it his best shot.

The story of the film more or less follows Hoover as he rises quickly through the ranks, initially as a vigilante member of the DOJ, infiltrating networks of Bolshevik spies and terrorists -- as he sees them -- and ending the threat to the United States' brand of capitalist democracy; then as the young head of a new government agency, dedicated to solving crimes and taking on giant criminal networks. Distrustful and peculiar, Hoover assembles a team of g-men in his own wishful image: proud, potent and unmistakably conspicuous, including his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and loyal personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and fights to keep his job and the bureau's mandate before five different presidents.

The frame of the film involves Hoover's story ostensibly being relayed to us as he dictates to a series of young agents, the origin of the bureau as a kind of thinly veiled justification of all the strongarmed blackmailing he felt compelled to do on the bureau's behalf. It's clear to us from very early on, however, that he's anything but a reliable witness to his own history. In his version of events, he's always at the forefront of danger, taking down hardened criminals and notorious gangsters, hobnobbing with Hollywood elite and making good his pledge of intractability with his country. The truth, relayed to us via numerous flashbacks and forwards (indeed the film ships so seamlessly between pasts and presents, it becomes less a distraction than a mental fight to keep everything straight on the timeline) is a good deal more convoluted. Hoover, a mama's boy to the core, was clearly in love with Tolson -- and more than vice-versa -- but his mother's admonishment that she'd rather have a "dead son than a daffodil" haunts him pervasively. He's a man who keeps secret dirt on anyone he thinks can challenge his power (a storm of files that the equally paranoid Nixon was very anxious to get his hands on), but has also filed away a good deal of his soul in the process.

Eastwood, whose directorial efforts can wax and wane somewhat, is in excellent form here. The scenes are powerful and credible, and he's garnered an excellent (and certain to be Oscar-nominated) performance from his star. If the ending doesn't hold quite the wallop it could have, it's a testament to Hoover's contradictory and enigmatic nature. He is a man, after all, who, near his death, elicits a promise from his secretary to destroy all the secret files he perpetually held over his adversaries' heads, tacitly acknowledging the completely self-serving sole purpose of the files in the first place.

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