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Zimbio Review - 'J. EDGAR'

AFI FEST 2011 Presented By Audi -
Actor Leonardo DiCaprio arrives at the "J. Edgar" opening night gala during AFI FEST 2011 presented by Audi held at Grauman's Chinese Theatre on November 3, 2011 in Hollywood, California. (Getty Images)more pics » The Bottom Line
Should you see it?


Based on a despicable character to begin with, we never learn anything new about J. Edgar.
Clint Eastwood's ambitious, but flawed, J. Edgar, will be remembered for its lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as the secretive first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover. The script, by Dustin Lance Black, covers nearly 50 years in Hoover's life and touches on many of the historic events he helped to shape while keeping its scope narrowly focused on its main character.

J. Edgar does not shape the world, rather, the world shapes him. The film depicts him as an industrious but vindictive and abstinent mama's boy who cared so much for his country's well-being, he trampled its Constitution to "protect" it. There is little in J. Edgar you couldn't learn from reading his Wikipedia page.

Black's script wanders through Hoover's life, frequently returning to scenes where he dictates his biography to a slew of handsome young writers. These scenes are distracting, and not just for DiCaprio's terrible make-up. They purposely set up what is obvious: the story we are watching is Hoover's version. Eastwood and Black take no chances. Hoover was one of the most powerful men of the 20th century, but single-handedly set back the advancement of women, and, ironically, the gay community and African-Americans (Hoover reportedly had black ancestors). Instead of delving into his deep-rooted repression and self-righteous morality, we are treated to a garden-variety depiction of his greatest hits, each scene trotted out with the intrigue of a bowl of oatmeal.

Beginning with Hoover's career in the Department of Justice and ending with his death as the Director of the F.B.I., J. Edgar spans nearly six decades in American history. The film shows us his vendetta against Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht), the beginnings of his lifelong war against "Bolshevik radicals" (although we never see his shameful ties to Joseph McCarthy), and his self-styled patriotism and motto, "knowledge is power," which serves as his rationale for keeping secret files on powerful "domestic threats," political figures (Eleanor Roosevelt, the Kennedys) and Hollywood stars.

Hoover is shown arrogantly perjuring himself to Congress while taking credit for hundreds of arrests he never made, but we learn little about how exactly he contributed to his famous "war on hoodlums" like John Dillinger or Machine Gun Kelly. What was the root of his entitlement? We know about his intellectual prowess and innovation - Hoover introduced fingerprinting and forensic science to the F.B.I. But his day to day influence is not shown, aside from picking agents who were clean-shaven, educated, and wore nice suits. Much time is spent on the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and Hoover's self-imposed involvement. He did many great things at the F.B.I. but many of us know that. What makes Hoover a captivating figure is what we don't know.

What we do learn about Hoover personally is he never married. He was perpetually joined by his right-hand, Clyde Tollson (Armie Hammer), who many believed was his secret love. The film does touch on their romantic relationship, albeit with the subtlety of a slammed door. Hoover makes eyes at Tollson upon first meeting, they hold hands in the car, and room together on trips to the racetrack. There is one scene where they kiss, after fighting, when Hoover reveals he will marry Dorothy Lamour. However, this scene is so forced, so predictable, the film would've been better served going tooth and nail into full-on lovemaking, at least we wouldn't have expected it.

Hoover also lived with his mother (the exceptional Judi Dench) until she died. She seems to shape J. Edgar, telling him she would never want a "daffodil" for a son. His father's mental illness is wholly ignored (the man is shown as a raving loon sitting on the porch as J. Edgar walks by). Hoover does have one other female influence besides his mommie dearest. Helen Gandy (a squandered Naomi Watts) serves as Hoover's lifelong personal secretary and holds the key to his personal files. Upon his death, she destroys them, robbing the audience of any inkling as to the details within.. a microcosm of the film itself.

As awful as the old man make-up is, DiCaprio's detailed performance is noteworthy. Similar in many ways to the deliberate walk and talk of his Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator, DiCaprio handles Hoover's calculated manner of speech with grace. Hoover was a stutterer and overcame it with constant study which led to his unique "accent." DiCaprio masters this cadence and is most effective in scenes when Hoover is angry and spouting off. As a simple character-study, J. Edgar is worth seeing for DiCaprio's performance alone.

Dench is a marvel, as always. She has the unique ability to steal every scene she's in (as she did in her other role this year in My Week with Marilyn). Hammer holds his own as the quiet Tollson, the character's faults are not in the performance, but in the lack of depth in the writing. Why would this educated, handsome man devote himself to a goblin like Hoover? He is not written as an abject careerist.

Eastwood usually has the gift of narrative style, but J. Edgar is without purpose. Meandering from Hoover's early life until his death, we are left without any real payoff. Why would a filmmaker like Eastwood devote himself to such an unromantic figure? He seems to be going through the motions. Hoover's public image these days is that of a cross-dressing closet case. Eastwood perpetuates this, instead of examining it. Sadly, J. Edgar remains a missed opportunity for its iconic director and talented writer.

See more photos from the J. Edgar premiere:
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
  • Naomi Watts in Leonardo DiCaprio at the 'J. Edgar' Premiere
View Hoover Pictures »
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