J. Edgar

13 Dec

Title: J. Edgar
Year: 2011
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench, Jeffrey Donovan, Ed Westwick, Stephen Root, Denis O’Hare
MPAA Rating: R, brief strong language
Runtime: 137 min
IMDb Rating: 7.2
Rotten Tomatoes: 42%

 

I had obviously heard some of the reactions to J. Edgar before watching it, after all the film’s been out for over a month, and, accordingly, I didn’t really know what to expect going into it. People, critics and audiences alike, seemed to be extremely divided by the film, some really seemed to like it, giving high praise to Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, others seemed to be seriously disappointed by it, citing distracting make-up and other technical issues, and a confusing narrative that didn’t really let you concentrate in the performances. So I really didn’t know what to expect, I couldn’t predict what side of the fence I would fall on. I’ve always been a huge fan of Clint Eastwood’s films (I gave last year’s Herefafter, which people were also polarized by, an A grade, and ranked it 22nd on my year-end list) and, on paper at least, this one did seem like a slam dunk.

Now that I’ve seen the film, I can say that while some parts didn’t really do it for me, overall I really liked it. I mean, it’s incredibly ambitious and many times that hurts it as it can’t come close to achieving some of them, but the performance by Mr. DiCaprio is undeniable, one of the year’s very best given by a leading male performer, and the film holds itself together nicely enough, even if the results never really seem to make their case for or against J. Edgar Hoover. It’s far from being a bad film, even if it’s no masterpiece either, but for all its flaws, of which there are a few, you can’t help but be captivated by this film, fascinated by the story it tells, spanning seven decades with ease. And during those times when it just seems that it will all go out of control, there’s Mr. Eastwood, with a light, sure-handed guidance, preventing that from happening.

When I reviewed Pedro Almodóvar’s The Skin I Live In about three weeks ago I said that the Spanish master is one of those directors that has a lifetime pass from me; he’s already given us so many masterful films that I won’t be pissed if his next one isn’t great and just be happy that he’s still making them. The same can be said about Mr. Eastwood, the man is eighty-one years old now, and has given us more than his fair share of outstanding films. And it’s as though he knows that himself, as every new film of his shows more and more that he’s over that need to impress and adapt. Which is why every new film of his also seems less and less safe, he doesn’t necessarily cares about a polished three-act structure, he never makes films for a paycheck, he takes chances with his choices, most of the time they seriously pay off, and even when they don’t he keeps going, delivering film after film with amazing consistency.

J. Edgar fits really nicely with the Eastwood oeuvre of late, by which I mean not the Mystic River or Million Dollar Baby era, but the Changeling or Hereafter era, films that mark him as a living legend preoccupied with staying true to his own vision, about expanding himself, continuing to evolve as a filmmaker at an age when many of his counterparts would be retiring or making the same thing over and over again. Mr. Eastwood isn’t done, J. Edgar, if anything, will make sure you realize that, he has a lot to say about the human condition, and yes, this film will no doubt have its detractors that will get really frustrated at it, but you can’t deny this man’s skill to tell a story.

J. Edgar Hoover has been dead for about four decades now, and when most people hear his name they tend to jump straight to the fact that he liked to dress as a woman, a rumor that was never actually verified, but the sort of gossip that, along with the fact that he never married, lived with his mother and had a close relationship with Clyde Tolson his protégé and the FBI’s associate director, triumphs over the fact that for over a half-dozen presidential administrations this man was probably the second most powerful man in the nation as he ran the FBI.

I liked J. Edgar, I kept hearing from some people that it was just awful, but I was surprised that this was as moving a film as I thought it ultimately was, a really nice portrayal of an American icon no one really seems to fully understand. And I liked that it wasn’t just the portrayal of a gay man which, considering that this was written by Dustin Lance Black, a gay man himself and the Oscar-winning writer of Milk, one could have easily suspected would have been the case. But it wasn’t, which made it all the more fascinating, it’s instead an exploration of the public image J. Edgar Hoover many times kept even in his private life, how for him it was all about impressions which would cement your power, and it’s really interesting to see that all play out.

Mr. Black does a good job at humanizing Hoover’s sexuality, not wanting to simply peg the man as a pervert like so many do, but instead working hard to show him as a closeted man but one who at the same time was true to his sexuality. He was a gay man in one of the nation’s most powerful positions, a guy who made a living out of knowing the secrets of everyone while trying to reveal none of his own. And actually, for all the things one would have maybe expected this film to be and at which it failed, I think that these qualities made it be a film few would have thought it would be, which is a really nice love story.

As we see Hoover’s relationship with Tolson, played really well by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer, it becomes a really sweet love story that spans decades of partnership, both personal and professional. We also get looks at the other personal relationships that helped shape this man, relationships without which, this film makes very clear, this man would have no doubt crumbled over the strains his work put over him. Those relationships, other than the  one with Tolson, were ones with two women. One was his mother, played so well by Judi Dench, a really domineering figure. And the other one was with Helen Gandy, played impeccably by Naomi Watts, a woman who he tried to date in order to have a woman by his side in his public life, but who instead became his secretary, his close ally whom he entrusted with so much.

Sometimes the narrative drive of the film didn’t work for me, that’s true, but the screenplay had a purpose and Mr. Eastwood is brilliant and guiding it through. And then there’s Mr. DiCaprio’s brilliant performance, his best to date, one that’s so deep, so fully realized, so subtle, that it’s just amazing to watch and is what keeps the film going for nearly two-and-a-half hours. Yes, the makeup used to make him appear old can be quite distracting at times, but once you get over that it’ll be hard to miss the sheer greatness of his performance, all of the mannerisms of a very obsessive man playing across his face like gangbusters. He won’t win the Oscar because of how polarizing the film’s been, but it’s a damn amazing performance that you won’t want to miss.

I liked that Mr. Eastwood, being the standup man that he is, didn’t give us scandalous scenes that would cheapen the portrayal of this man. Like I said, I didn’t get the sense that the director was for or against Hoover, which is just as good because we can make that decision for ourselves. I’m an Eastwood apologist, that’s for sure, I’ll defend the man to the ends of the world, and I’m sure that he was fascinated by the man, the man obsessed with presenting an idea of himself to world, and I liked that such a legendary director tackled a story that needed to be told. It’s film that will help us understand a man so few actually do, that will give us the story of a very important man in a very important era of America, and one that just so happened to be gay.

Go watch J. Edgar right away, I don’t care what you may have heard about it being bad. It’s not a masterpiece, I actually still like Hereafter better than I did this one, but it is, I believe, an important film, and one made by one of the most important living directors. This is a guy who’ll stop making movies sooner than one would like, so we should cherish the ones he keeps giving us, should cherish the way he handles so many characters and decades here with such ease. Make of J. Edgar what you may, just please make sure you actually make something of it; by which I mean, go see it.

Grade: A-

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One Response to “J. Edgar”

  1. Logan Burd December 13, 2011 at 10:49 pm #

    Great review! I loved the movie, definitely worth an Oscar or two! Check out my review of J. Edgar and comment or subscribe!
    http://allihavetosayaboutthat.wordpress.com/2011/11/13/j-edgar-2011/

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