LEONARDO DICAPRIO ARMIE HAMMER NAOMI WATTS JUDI DENCH
This might be one of Academy Award winning director Clint Eastwood’s most divided and controversial films. Everyone seems to already be divided on the film; it’s a love-it or hate-it kind of picture. It’s fascinating history that certainly was never discussed in my history classes, but it also takes a look behind the scenes of one of the nation’s most important, devious, ambitious, and private men of his era. The role of J Edgar Hoover in some ways is the biggest departure for threetime Oscar nominee DiCaprio (Blood Diamond, The Aviator) and his recent escalating success. DiCaprio is one of those iconic actors that history will remember as one of the true greats. The question now becomes will DiCaprio win the Oscar in what will certainly be his fourth nomination. Eastwood certainly has a reputation for directing actors in award winning performances.
John Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was a momma’s boy first. He was taught how to dress and conduct himself as a gentleman. His eagerness to change the way the United States investigated crimes began at an early age as did his obsession with exposing and deporting communists even if just within the realm of the law. J. Edgar as his mother (Dench) called him, rose quickly throughout his career as he developed what became known as “J. Edgar’s FBI”. He chose his agents strictly, by their physicality, wardrobe and loyalty. His persistence in creating finger printing changed everything within law enforcement. Presidents and government officials feared what he kept hiding in his “secret files” guarded by one of only two people he trusted, his secretary Helen Gandy (Watts). His best friend and righthand man Clyde Tolson (Hammer), however, was the person he spent his life with, as they agreed early on never to miss a lunch or dinner together.
The one thing J. Edgar hated was the word ‘no’, even early in the film when he tries to make a wife out of Helen Gandy, his defeat results in her promotion to his personal secretary; he wasn’t leaving without a yes to something. “Trust No One” was the slogan for Fox Mulder, FBI agent in The X-Files television series and films, but here we see that phrase originated Hoover, something he practiced his entire life. The scene in which Hoover exacts his new power by handpicking agents perfectly exemplifies the man Hoover is becoming for better or worse. Eastwood even shows how Hoover managed to change Hollywood from rooting for the gangsters in action movies to cheering on “The G-Men”.
I found the film extremely diverse, purposely uneven and the most exact in sensitive areas. In many ways, J. Edgar is the year’s unconventional love story. Eastwood and Oscarwinning screenwriter Dustin Black (Milk) never paint Hoover as a hero or a villain, rather he is presented as a flawed human who is conditioned by his controlling mother, compelled by his own twisted sense of right and wrong, impassioned by a forbidden love affair. The “daffodil” scene is very likely to earn Oscar winner Judi Dench her 7th nomination. Watts is great but her role is unfortunately too passive to earn any awards attention. The Social Network’s Armie Hammer completely steals the show in what will be his career defining performance. The fight sequence alone is worth a nomination. In all ages of the character he plays he is unforgettable and such a perfect opposite for both DiCaprio and Hoover. It’s a tossup for me which performance is better; Hoover or Howard Hughes in The Aviator. I would love to see DiCaprio take it home for this role that I imagine will be looked back upon as one of those films many people didn’t get at the time, but that might be Eastwood’s greatest trick of all.
Final Thought – Completely fascinating, DiCaprio and Hammer give two of the year’s best performances.
By: Dustin Chase W.
Editor: Donna Copeland
Clint Eastwood has done it again with his masterful storytelling and investigation of salient, topical issues. J. Edgar Hoover has had a mixed reputation for many years, and the writer (Dustin Lance Black) and Eastwood are to be commended for an even-handed treatment of the man and the material. We are able to get a glimpse of Hoover’s background and the profound influence of his mother on his beliefs and deportment in life. We see how he makes his way in the political world of Washington, and how his personal, sometimes biased, views allow him to manipulate reality to serve his purposes. We see someone whom we can admire on the one hand; and on the other hand, someone who can alarm and even disgust us by his imprudence and sense of entitlement.
Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover is convincing, and techniques for his and other characters’ aging are highly effective. Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother comes across as both loving and controlling, and Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary, is likewise very strong. Armie Hammer as Hoover’s best friend Clyde Tolson is an apt choice in his appearance and in his transformation over time from a dandy with gorgeous long eyelashes to an aging victim of a stroke. Both DiCaprio and Tolson elegantly captured the ambivalences of the men toward each other and toward their own impulses.
The only significant drawback of the film was the switching backward and forward in time, apparently a favorite technique for so many directors nowadays. It seems to serve no purpose in this case, and contributed to the feeling I had of being jerked around. Interestingly, I did a double take when I saw the same fireplace in Hoover’s office that he had earlier admired in Bobby Kennedy’s office. Ah, but no mistake on the filmmakers’ part; Hoover had actually had the same fireplace installed in his own office!
This is an extremely well executed film, and one that would be instructive in political science classes.