Review by Ryan Wilson

The most intriguing aspect of watching a film like J. Edgar involves interpreting not just the historical legacy of the man but the history that the man shaped. So when you’re watching the new epic bio-pic directed by Clint Eastwood, we’re not just learning about the giant historical footprint of J. Edgar Hoover, but we’re also learning about Eastwood’s worldview.

Eastwood wouldn’t be anyone’s obvious choice to direct this type of historical drama. When dealing with the sweep and scope of J. Edgar Hoover’s lifetime, the speed and range of a Martin Scorsese would seem more appropriate. And when you get to the myriad of interpretations of J. Edgar, his politics, his personal life, one would expect the hyper-subjective handling of an Oliver Stone. Conversely, Eastwood has made his name as a director for his nuance in quietly powerful dramas like Million Dollar Baby and Mystic River.

Because of this J. Edgar feels the least like Eastwood’s other films, which is both a criticism and a nice surprise. The sets and costumes are meticulously detailed, and the music minimal. Mostly Eastwood lets Leonardo DeCaprio dominate the frame, which is also both good and bad.  can certainly handle the roll, but watching him reminds us of his role as Howard Hughes in Scorcese’s 2004 film The Aviator. Both men begin as highly energetic idealists, forces of nature in the early 20th century. Both men also suffer from their personal eccentricities and ethical quandaries. Both men shape the future of the country, but ultimately become victims of their own success.

Unlike The Aviator, Eastwood lets J. Edgar age, so that we can see the full range of the man’s actions on himself. He’s a grotesque to say the least. But as full a view as this provides, it also means that throughout most of the film we’re watching DeCaprio stuck in some poor make-up and a hulking body suit that makes him look like the later version of Orson Welles as Charles Foster Kane.

I like to think that the resemblance is purposeful because like Citizen Kane, Eastwood artfully bends time throughout the film. At first this is through flashback as Hoover dictates his memoirs to various underlings, but as the film progresses Eastwood cuts randomly to various moments in Hoover’s life, and it’s up to us to negotiate just where we are. For example, the Linbergh Baby kidnapping plays a prominent roll in the film, but this story is spliced together with an older Hoover attempting to blackmail Martin Luther King, Jr. in the 1960s, along with other events, such as catching the bank robbers of the 1930s and defeating the Bolsheviks of the 1920s. The result is not a linear view of J. Edgar but a definition of his unrelenting character. Once you’ve been named his public enemy number one, there’s no just stopping him.

Eastwood’s brilliant editing also allows us to see Hoover as a complex human being. He’s at one moment revolutionizing how to catch criminals by using scientific innovation such as fingerprinting and at another moment promoting his newly formed FBI as G-men in movies and comic books. When politicians accuse him of being more of a PR man rather than a crime fighter, we see in his eyes that he’s simultaneously injured by the remark and dismissive of fools who can’t see what he’s building. His character ultimately boils down to control and what he’ll do to keep the power he’s acquired. This leads to the secret files that he keeps on every sitting president, to essentially blackmail them into not tampering with his methods or his agency. Though he wants to be completely separated from politics, he arguably becomes the most political animal in Washington.

If the movie paints a portrait of a man wound too tightly, it also attempts to explain why, and the reason feels all too simple: J Edgar, according to film, was the ultimate mama’s boy, the sort who lets his mother, played by an icy Judi Dench, shape every aspect of his existence. She dresses him, even as a grown man, and presides over every success and failure in his professional life. When he fails to save lives, she pointedly tells him that the blood is on his hands.

Having such a mother, Hoover is portrayed as a man aping to be the model for other men, and so he lives his live constricted. This is obviously a problem when homosexual tendencies surface, and he must suppress them. Hoover’s relationship with his assistant director Clyde Tolson, played wonderfully by Armie Hammer, becomes the most interesting subplot of the film, and ultimately becomes the true tragedy of his life. Hoover loves Clyde but is never able to express or act on it because of the very model of living he chooses to extol.

Eastwood gives us plenty of irony throughout the film, which is unusual for him. Given Eastwood’s politics and lasting image as Dirty Harry, it’s not a surprise that he admires J. Edgar. But, as he must, Eastwood also shows the toll that such innovation takes, not just on a man but on a country. He ends the film rather detached from Hoover, which is appropriate. Like Charles Foster Kane, Eastwood’s J. Edgar is too large to understand completely.

Take 5 on Film is a production of Delta College Quality Public Radio.

© Ryan Wilson, 2011