Director: Clint Eastwood
J. Edgar Hoover: Leonardo DiCaprio
Clyde Tolson: Armie Hammer
Helen Gandy: Naomi Watts
Hoover's Mommy: Judi Dench
As a film, J. Edgar is sound. Eastwood's directing is composed. Tom Stern's cinematography is considered. Dustin Lance Black's script is way more nuanced than Milk and has the subtlest use of the unreliable narrator that I've ever witnessed. DiCaprio, Watts, Dench and Hammer all deliver. The costumes and sets are nice (though my friend kept making fun of the make-up used to age Leo and Armie; most reviewers have pointed out the oddities of the make-up).
I want to compare it to a Waltz danced at a high-caliber but without much flourish or need of flourish, so you admire the movement but are wanting for a daring moment.
Is it worth seeing? Sure.
Is it important?
There's no camera work that is ballsy (a few extreme long shots, several from-the-ceiling camera shots; if there's a shot longer than 20 seconds I can't remember it? If there's a shot that's 20 seconds I can't remember it). No avant-garde shot composition. Watts is solid, but doesn't have much to do (as in Dream House). Hammer is good. And DiCaprio was good, but...Was he Sean Penn as Harvey Milk good? I don't think so. I thought there were the same DiCaprio mannerisms and speech cadences I saw in The Departed, Shutter Island and Inception.
The one aspect that impressed me was the script. It's several stories in one: Hoover's life, Hoover's career, Hoover's and Tolson's relationship (so, in a way, a love story), the rise of the FBI, and the rise of modern police forensics. And since it spans 40 years, J. Edgar is the story of America from Bolsheviks to Gangsters to Communists to Civil Rights to Nixon.
Is this layered structuring groundbreaking? No, Batman Begins is essentially doing the same thing (the rise of Batman, Bruce Wayne becoming a socialite, Bruce taking back his company, the love story, the rise of Gordon, two bit crooks giving way to the mafia giving way to super villains).
What about the stories? What do these stories do for us?
If Hoover's life is important, what did the movie tell us about him that Wikipedia doesn't? Not much. The wikipedia page for J. Edgar Hoover contains many of the plot points of the film. Most of what isn't covered can be found under Helen Gandy and The Lindbergh kidnapping.
The big moments in this movie are: wearing a dress and a necklace for thirty seconds, two men kissing, and a racist tirade. Is any of that shocking to you? Watch Psycho, watch Milk, watch American History X and it won't be.
"Yeah, but this is J. Edgar Hoover doing those things! J. Edgar Hooover!"
So? If it were Bill Clinton, I'd be shocked--who would see that coming?!
But I've heard the rumors about Hoover. He's been dead since 1972. The man's reputation has been teetering for decades. And this movie teeters the same. It never condemns him nor sanctifies him. It recreates the history and presents it to us.
Again, is that important?
Is Hoover's life important? Is Hoover's career important? Is the love story important? Is his relationship with his mother important? Is the rise of the FBI important? Is the rise of modern police forensics important? Is the recounting of movements and famous figures within America important?
What's important about this film is the change of tone.
Hoover, for a majority of the movie--when he wants centralized finger printing, when he wants to put a stop to the Bolsheviks, to get Dillinger and cease the public worship of criminals, to stop cops from contaminating crime scenes, to give the people federal heroes--appears a force of intelligence, of uprightness, of a stern type of good.
But in the last third of the film, Edgar is more and more about wire-tapping, about stalking public officials to gather compromising information as a way to keep his position secure (since every new president wanted to remove him), to have power over others, as a way to, as he supposes, keep the country safe from communists, from those who he thinks are bad for the Red, White and Blue. We hear the disgusting letter he sends to Martin Luther King Jr. He's proud to have secured the ability to wire-tap anyone he wants. His best friend, his true love, Tolson, asks, half-way disgusted, if this is legal. Hoover brushes legality aside, says bending the rules for security is the way of things. He is, in his old age, a monster, a noble one, a respected one, a revered one, one that loves, but a monster nonetheless.
What we've witnessed, isn't the life of J. Edgar Hoover, but the change from "America the Naive and Vulnerable" to "America: Shady as Shit and Aggressive to Boot".
Is it any wonder the only president Eastwood puts on the screen is Nixon? And only after Hoover has died? This is a cinematic passing of the Torch of Duplicity. 6 weeks after Hoover's death, Watergate happened, Nixon erupted into flames (thanks to "Deep Throat" leaking remarkable information to the Washington Post) (note that "Deep Throat" was Mark Felt, the third-ranking FBI agent, right behind Hoover and Tolson), and American politics have never been the same. America has never been the same.
Whether it meant to be or not, J. Edgar is important because it is the mythology of our current political and judicial culture. So as our government is, in this fall of 2011, by all appearances, unraveling, this movie retells for us the fraying of the very first seam.
("whoa, wait, judicial culture?" Yeah, the forensic science that Hoover championed has changed the way the courts and police operate. Not to mention his push to make kidnapping a federal offense.)
Did I Like It:
I didn't dislike it.
I left unsure of what I thought. After all the thought and research that went into informing the final argument of this inquiry, I like the movie more.
It doesn't make sense to me why the agents taking dictation change. They built up the first agent (Hoover says: "I like him.") and then he's gone. And then the last agent to take dictation looks way too much like Barack Obama. Symbolism? I don't know how many different scribes there were...I can remember only three. But I'm curious to see if the others hold any resemblances. Maybe I just missed something?
The most tense portion of the movie was, for me, the drafting of the letter to MLK.
Oh. And it was interesting to me that the camera angle used when Hoover and his mother dance is the same camera angle used when Hoover is curled in a ball on the floor after his mother's death and is the same camera angle used when Hoover is on the floor after his own death.
Hammer did well.
update 4/9/12: I just saw The Iron Lady and, similarities in plot structure aside, and I couldn't stop thinking: WHY WAS THE MAKE-UP IN J EDGAR SO WEIRD!
What It's Good For:
-American history, politics, DiCaprio
-if you consider yourself a "film person" because it's worth talking about
-I would recommend teachers see it. Especially history teachers
-I think actors and actresses would be interested in analyzing it -I think it's a film people should see in order to understand a possible starting point for our current climate, something that should be shown junior or senior year of high school
-If you like movies that strive for realism. The movie tries hard for authenticity. Many critics have praised the costuming and sets
-if you want something with dramatic tension, this isn't it.
-if you're tired of DiCaprio using the same mannerisms all the time, you may not be wooed by his performance the way others are
-it's long. 2 hours and 17 minutes.
-a lack of tension, action, humor, or twist
-if for some reason you can't stand the idea of two men loving one another, you may not enjoy the film. The relationship between Hoover and Tolson is one of love. It never gets romantic. But it's there
-if you hate realistic movies.
% Character / % Actor's personality
Hammer playing Young Tolson: 60/40
Hammer playing Old Tolson: 90/10
Eastwood: Gran Torino; Invictus
DiCaprio: Shutter Island; The Departed; Inception; Total Eclipse
Dench: Casino Royale
Watts: King Kong; Dream House; Eastern Promises
Hammer: The Social Network
Milk: Sean Penn, James Franco, Emile Hirsch, Josh Brolin