wogma rating: Beg or borrow, but do watch (?)
J Edgar has a typical Clint Eastwood theme – a man with his overbearing sense of self – and his political/psychological conflicts. As Hoover, DiCaprio is fascinating and the immensely gripping, well-researched portrayal of this powerful public figure makes J Edgar a must watch.Read more
If you compare the black and white picture of J Edgar Hoover and Leonardo DiCaprio, you’ll see just how shockingly different they look from one another. So when I learned that the latter was playing Hoover in Eastwood’s next film, I felt a wave of anticipation.
Having enough faith in the politically meaty character of Hoover, Eastwood’s ability to bring to the table a perspective (in a biopic) that might be least expected and Leonardo DiCaprio’s stellar dedication to give his best performance and raise the bar with every film – I walked out of the film knowing my faith has been kept
A biopic on one the most contributive head of the Bureau of Investigation, J Edgar is a subtly paced, psychologically underlined film. During his tenure as the head (he’s also responsible for adding the term Federal to the FBI); he worked around 8 presidents, who feared him as he kept secret files on almost every public figure.
He in turn, feared his mother (Judi Dench), who is quite strong with her words and, through whom the politics of his sexuality is best surrounded. She believed, “I’d rather have a dead son, than a daffodil for a son”, and it could be for this reason that his homosexuality was always closeted. This fact however, is never openly discussed in the film, and only beautifully hinted at in a passing manner.
He also shares screen space with another woman, FBI secretary Helen Gandy ( Naomi Watts ). They share a first date when he decides that marriage would be beneficial for him. Watts ’ subtle performance as his life-long secretary is notable.
Rumored to be in a homosexual relationship with his associate and lifelong friend, Clyde Tolson, his public image disallowed any homosexual man (or black men and any woman) to become FBI agents. Eastwood ’s film mostly captures this public portrayal.
In true Eastwood style, the 81-year old auteur marks his stamp on the film by moving through his ferocious decline as a public figure via 2 main time periods: 1920s and 30s when he was establishing himself and the late 60s when he recounts his life while transcribing his memoirs.
The latter part of the film easily captures DiCaprio’s finer performance. It’s quivering yet controlled and dominant. You can tell that Eastwood isn’t a big fan of Hoover, having stripped down the character to its hypocrisies and insecurities. However, the magnanimous picture that he puts forward of the tumultuous life of J Edgar Hoover makes you realize that it’s his public mask that Eastwood admired most: the overriding, authoritative and narcissistic head of the FBI.
The film’s back-and-forth narrative lacks punch in some parts, as the Lindbergh Kidnapping case and the John Dillenger case unfolds. You wish the otherwise repressive relationship between Tolson and him could have been explored more, but in many post-movie interviews Eastwood mentions as that’s just not how he saw his film.
This is what I meant when I mentioned the film to be a least expected perspective on the life of J Edgar. Rumours about his sexuality were rife through his tenure and post – and even when the film was under production it’s an angle most viewers were expecting. In that sense, J Edgar stands as a bit of a letdown, to be ignoring such a potentially controversial subject matter.
DiCaprio only grows with every film, and J Edgar is testament to this fact. He grows as Hoover in the film too; while the younger Hoover is a bit one-dimensional in his ambitious enthusiasm, the older and more vindictive Hoover remains one of DiCaprio’s best performances till date.
Writer Dustin Black (also written Milk) follows a fairly similar structure of a biopic, which includes the establishment, demystification and subtle homage of a public figure but kudos to Eastwood for sticking with a perspective (even though a bit narrow) and bringing out a personal, emotional and immensely political representation of J Edgar Hoover.
The film could have done with better lines, and a tighter, more convincing first half (which tries too hard to establish Hoover as a likable figure, presumable as an antithesis to his portrayal later). However, watch the film for DiCaprio’s Hoover - his inner struggle and a commendable take on someone who was once known as America’s second most powerful man.
This review is by guest reviewer Swetha Ramakrishnan. Swetha Ramakrishnan is currently living and working in Mumbai. She's a self-confessed film enthusiast and can most likely be found talking to anyone and everyone about popular cinema and her love for SRK. Swetha Ramakrishnan also blogs at http://swetharamakrishnan.blogspot.com/.
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