Friday, November 11, 2011

Reel To Reel: J. Edgar

Guns, guts, and Mommy Dearest.

Going Rate: Worth full price admission
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench
Rated: R (but really should be a PG-13)
Red Flags: One short scene of brief strong language, two mild homosexual kisses

J. Edgar Hoover built the Federal Bureau of Investigation into a powerfully innovative crime-fighting agency, one that would do his own personal bidding, and yet this film portrays him as cornered by a long-rumored homosexuality and his relationship with his mother. This irony is the heart of J. Edgar, a Clint Eastwood-directed period piece that's a shoo-in for at least a couple of Oscar nominations.

Make-up should be one of them, as we see alternating images of Leonardo DiCaprio playing Hoover as a young Justice Department agent while the older, grizzled Hoover dictates his glory days for a book. As he did in The Aviator and Shutter Island, DiCaprio handles period roles and historical heavyweights with precision and ease. His Hoover obsesses over radicals and communist threats to America underneath every rock, and he laments that his Justice colleagues don't seem to understand it. He says people forget "the bombs," what we would call terrorist attacks by Bolsheviks in the early 1900's, before the word "terrorist" entered our lexicon. He finds evidence of subversion in the White House and the civil rights movement. One subplot involves Hoover wiretapping the hotel room of Martin Luther King Junior.

Information is Hoover's weapon of choice, as he ruthlessly compiles secret files on opponents and dissidents to gather information for leverage while pushing the FBI to develop groundbreaking techniques in forensic analysis. It is hard to imagine a time when police didn't check for fingerprints, let alone DNA, but it's even harder to imagine how sloppily authorities would treat a crime scene. Hoover uses the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby as his proving grounds, the crime of the century that became the trial of the century, to show how criminals couldn't beat science.

Hoover's personal life is less than triumphant. He hires underqualified agent Clyde Tolson (Hammer), who turns into his chief deputy and lover, a relationship he conducts with strategic secrecy to keep it from ruining him. His secretary Helen Gandy is his right-hand woman, keeping his schedule running and his personal files hidden. And then there's Mother: Annie Hoover (Dench) is not an overbearing figure, but she is the only woman Hoover can relate to. No doubt about it, J. Edgar is a mama's boy.

J. Edgar can drag at points, but overall, Clint Eastwood keeps the story moving while understanding we need additional insight in order to appreciate the complexities and ironies surrounding a man who served six presidents. Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the biopic Milk, handles Hoover's suspected homosexuality in a discreet manner that one could argue, as former FBI man W. Mark Felt did, that they simply were engaging in brotherly love.

The film does not break new ground as much as it lets us see the world from Hoover's perspective, that of a dedicated public servant who lives and breathes crimefighting and will stop at nothing to keep Americans safe.

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