Clint Eastwood is a man everybody respects. As an actor, director, producer and composer to dozens of movies, his filmography is an impressive one indeed. With that said, his last few cinematic endeavors have been considerably less than. Not since 2006’s Letters from Iwo Jima has he made a truly great movie and last year’s Hereafter proved to be one of the year’s biggest disappointments. His latest, J. Edgar, is not a return to form, but it’s certainly a step up. While not a great movie by any means (and sloppy in more areas than one), it nevertheless has a goal and reaches it.
That goal, at its simplest, is to depict J. Edgar Hoover’s life as he builds and legitimizes the power of the FBI while also exploring his alleged homosexuality. The film, in a well done balancing act, creates a juxtaposition between his two halves, as a man who was forced to hide his true self while also serving as one of the faces of a growing America. It’s that contrast that gives the film its weight. It portrays him as an intensive man that was so caught up in his job he didn’t have time for friends, perhaps as a way to cope with the falsity of his normal life. His time spent working was the only time he was truly himself. He didn’t have to fake his passion for his work, he simply had it.
Of course, the controversy of Hoover’s life is on display as well and you get to see that his passion is sometimes misplaced. Never mind the fact that he was so adamant about his men dressing nicely and sporting a clean face (perhaps as a way to bring at least a portion of his true self to his work). He harasses people suspected of subversion and abuses his authority to get what he wants. If the reach of his authority becomes limited, he blackmails his superiors into giving him more.
But if he was imperfect, he was also quite smart. While the film doesn’t shy away from criticizing him, it nevertheless treats him like a man of high intelligence and unwavering principles, however wrongheaded they may be. One can’t help but simultaneously loathe and revere Mr. Hoover in a way that is uncommon among many one-dimensional, poorly developed characters that exist as either black or white, good or evil, wrong or right. Hoover hits all extremes and numerous places in between. He is a strong, but flawed individual with hidden demons and a clear mind, though certainly troubled and distant from his own reality.
All of that can be seen clearly for those who are interested in dissecting the character. While some of that can certainly be attributed to writer Dustin Lance Black, who was responsible for 2008’s truly wonderful Milk, most of it is due to Leonardo DiCaprio’s masterful performance as Hoover, once again proving that he’s one of the best actors working today. In a movie that is very talkative, dry and sometimes dreary, he delivers his lines with vigor and makes them something more. Even with dark eyes, pale skin, slicked back hair and strange lighting that makes him look like he would fit comfortably in a 1920’s version of Twilight, he manages to impress. He overcomes any shortcomings, visual, verbal or otherwise, and makes the character his own.
J. Edgar is, at times, like many of Clint Eastwood’s films: heavy handed. Movies like Hereafter, Invictus and Gran Torino, for instance, were too thematically intense, taking its central idea and shoving it down your throat. This, on the other hand, is emotionally too much. It doesn’t toy with yours, but it overdoes the emotion in its characters. Despite its intentions, the film is hard to take seriously when certain scenes are so over-the-top, but just when it seems to be going too far, it calms itself down. These redemptions are what make the movie good, but the fact that they exist to begin with is what keeps it from being great.
J. Edgar receives 3.5/5