November 20, 2011

Movie Review: J. Edgar

I have never been a big history guy. I am aware of some things, but when it comes to big picture, retention, understanding, and application of such historical information, forget it. I know I should not be this way, but that is just the way I am wired. Why am I talking about this? Well, the movie at hand is about a historical figure and one of the more mysterious political personalities of the past century, J. Edgar Hoover. I am aware of him and the talk of him wearing women's clothing and the possibility that he may have been gay. I also know that he kept files on all sorts of different people containing information that he used to help keep and increase his power. Now we have a movie offering some insight into his life.

J. Edgar was directed by Clint Eastwood and features a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk). The film is framed with Hoover narrating his life for his memoirs. This frame takes us through much of his life, spanning his young years with the Department of Justice, to his appointment of head of the department, and his tenure as head of the Bureau of Investigation which lasted until his death in 1972. We are also given a look at the relationship he had with his lifelong receptionist, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his second in command, and thought to be partner, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

The movie is interesting, a bit on the dry side, but definitely interesting. If nothing else, J. Edgar Hoover was a fascinating individual. He was intent on retaining power, having information on everyone to keep in his back pocket, and at times seemingly a petty, petulant man. Of course, with all of my background, I am not exactly the right guy to say.

So far as the movie is concerned, it works because of the work of two men, Leonard Dicaprio and Armie Hammer. Hammer gives a solid performance as Tolson, particularly as the character ages. The man who was not qualified for the position given by Hoover, yet became his closest adviser and confidant. Hammer brings strength and sensitivity to the screen as he takes hold of the character.

Dicaprio, on the other hand, turns in another great performance and is likely to be recognized by the Academy with an Oscar nomination. If nothing else, they are a sucker for mimicry and transformation, which Leo and the make up department do exceptionally well here. From the "what you see is what you get" man that everyone saw to the mama's boy who lived with his mother for a long time, from the unemotional man gathering all the power too himself to the man who wept like a baby and put on his mother's dress after her death, Dicaprio nails it.

Still, I cannot help but feel that the movie really was not all that great. Good and solid for sure, but it is not something I think I will ever watch again. It was just a dry experience and I see a couple of things working against it. One is the timeline, it jumps around to the various events of his life, for me this style lessens the cumulative impact of the events of his life. Perhaps it is just me, but I would have preferred a more straightforward approach. Then there is Eastwood's directing style, which has become more minimalistic over the years and this approach does not help the already dry material. I am not asking for something big, but the material could have used a bit of a punch up.

This is not a bad movie, and watching the Dicaprio/Hammer combo is definitely worth the time. It is really hard to go wrong with an Eastwood film, even flawed ones are going to be good movies. It doesn't hurt that the subject of this particular one was a mysterious individual. The one funny takeaway I had from J. Edgar is that a couple different turns and Hoover could have been Ed Gein....

Mildly Recommended.

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