What Fingerprints Cannot Reveal

J. Edgar (January 13, 2011*)     3.5/5

Directed by Clint Eastwood (Warner Bros. Pictures)

*The following is a review from a screening of J. Edgar at The Lyric theater in Blacksburg, VA. In the coming weeks, I will attempt to visit the theater more often, since I will likely be able to see several films I missed in 2011. However, I will try to keep these reviews shorter than most, considering they won’t be in reference to new releases of 2012. The films that The Lyric shows are second-run, but usually critically acclaimed or of art-house interest.

One can’t deny that Clint Eastwood is still a director of ambition. Even 2010’s Hereafter, which was quite poorly written, was crafted with enough Eastwood stylization to make it consistently interesting. J. Edgar, a biopic about the infamous head of the FBI for nearly 50 years, thrives with such intrigue, looking and feeling in the realm of a dreamlike snapshot of history, and therefore, being nothing less than fascinating. Although it does stumble upon the many thematic elements it hopes to convey, supplemented by a technical production that appears somewhat lazy, J. Edgar haunts when placed in the hands of Leonardo DiCaprio, who transforms himself into Hoover like few actors could ever hope to accomplish.

Eastwood most succeeds in spanning decades with such fluent ease. Written by Dustin Lance Black, who also penned Milk, the film tracks the power Hoover exerts over the newly formed organization, pioneering law enforcement techniques that now seem basic, such as fingerprinting. We also flash through such events as the hunt for John Dillinger and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby, all while gaining a sense of the possibly false image Hoover is building for himself, witnessed by an impressionable American public.

In addition, J. Edgar attempts to reveal the relationships that helped shape a shadowed figure. Hoover was very close to his mother, played by Judi Dench, and found a key ally in secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Yet the most prominent figure in Hoover’s life was associate director Clyde Tolson, played quite successfully by Armie Hammer (familiar from his role as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network), who soon became his companion for life. J. Edgar never shies away from the fact that its protagonist was gay, yet it handles the matter in an exquisite way. Hoover loves Tolson, no doubt, but their relationship spawns not due to sexual desire, but of a need for Hoover to hold onto an intense friendship. The image he hopes to build will simply not allow for the feelings he holds deep in his heart. But these are not Hoover’s only secrets – he makes tapes of his own accord, hardly ever revealed to the presidents (or first ladies) who are involved. Hoover compensates for his clothed personality by appearing to tackle crime (and Communism) with the strength of Superman, bending the rules to catch criminals but shunning away from Civil Rights, in addition to the homosexuality he hopes to mask with the promise of lifelong friendship.

At the core, J. Edgar is a surprisingly touching love story. Yet like its subject, appearance plays a key role. The film looks fantastic, but there are a few aspects of the production that seem particularly poor. The makeup, for instance, is quite exaggerated, the older version of Tolson looking like something out of a Universal monster movie. Color, while stylistically drained, never quite clicks with the surreal lighting that firmly places the film out of realistic context. Many performances also approach caricature, especially the characterizations of Robert Kennedy and Nixon. DiCaprio, however, feels ever so real, even in his over-the-top, elderly appearance. He dominates the film by taking authority where the situation calls for it, yet also showing the vulnerability that led his character to lead such a contradictory life. Even when it begins to approach self-parody, J. Edgar knows what a fascinating subject it has under its cinematic microscope.

This is both the film’s biggest success and weakness. Eastwood never quite gives enough weight to the moments that will help Hoover promote himself and compensate for his own inner-conflict. The story will eventually reveal that these important, misconstrued events have occurred, but we are too swept up in this complex, narrative puzzle to focus on the significance of any particular moment in Hoover’s career. The emotion often comes from scenes where Hoover is forced to confront his feelings. Unfortunately, these moments often occur in obvious places, rather than in the midst of the decisions Hoover is forced to make throughout such a long career. What Eastwood expects is for his unique style of filmmaking to firmly root his audience in history, letting both expectation and DiCaprio’s sensational performance to drive home an interesting perspective of a man we all know so little about.

I’m not one to judge Eastwood’s historical accuracy, but even when J. Edgar becomes slightly flat, it is still interesting to see how the director handles not only Hoover’s perplexing life, but the reactions of those who surround him. The film examines not only how Hoover affected the world, but how the people in his life provoked him to do it. And although the film never fully accomplishes this task, maybe that is an inevitability. Cinema, no matter how hard it tries, will never be able to fully understand the motives behind a person who actually existed in this world. No doubt, it can create fascinating portraits of life, but never without the intent of the filmmakers to support an idea that has already been manipulated by themselves. Eastwood’s ambitions lie in simply letting Hoover’s life fall before the screen, enamored in the conscious awareness that we are indeed watching a film. J. Edgar therefore attempts to breach a grand facade, entertaining through its display of a life that is as mysterious to us as the man who lived it.

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