Thursday, 23 October 2014

J. Edgar (2011)

It was perhaps fitting that the biopic of a man both revered and reviled received such mixed reviews upon release.

J. Edgar was a self confessed labour of love for Clint Eastwood and follows the template of his directorial style for better or worse; satisfyingly old fashioned, epic in length, stately, methodical and conservative. The criticism the film received is understandable given its structural flaws - using an episodic flashback and forward narrative, Eastwood gives us very little to hang onto other than the very flabby and creaky device of the main protagonist, in later years, dictating his life story - but perhaps more frustrating is the kid gloves approach he takes with the more reviled characteristics of Hoover. Certainly he addresses the notion of power and fame corrupting the man, how he  spun his own PR to suggest he was more hands on than he truly was, and, thankfully, he explores the seamier side and issues inherent in giving one man such power for so long most noticeably in his spiteful vendettas against public figures most notably Martin Luther King. 

Unfortunately, Eastwood's exploration is hardly even handed as more is given over to the considered successes and positives of Hoover's career, notably his forward thinking and faith in criminal science which came to a head in the tragic baby Lindbergh kidnapping case. 

Where Eastwood should be applauded however is in his sensitive handling of Hoover's private life; his oedipal relationship with his mother and the rumours he wore her clothing, along with his homosexuality and long standing relationship or companionship with his second in command Clyde Tolson, things that would once be held up as salacious indecencies that proved Hoover's unsuitability for his role and was used by way of explanation for his more monstrous behaviour are dealt with matter of factly, in context and touchingly. It's easy to protest that this biopic didn't focus on the dirt as much as we would perhaps like but, quite rightly, Eastwood ensures an audience realises there's no dirt to be found in the man's sexual preferences.  

Personally I would have liked to have seen more of all Hoover's stages at the FBI and for a film that runs at 2 hrs 10 mins it's a shame that so many things are glossed over, mentioned only in passing or ignored completely - such as his battles against organised crime, his involvement in McCarthy's witch hunts and his volatile relationships with successive presidents -  as the film largely concentrates itself with Lindbergh and Hoover's last days. It is in the climax that Eastwood offers us a brief yet tantalising parallel between Hoover and the then White House incumbent Nixon. On Hoover's death, the president worked quick to seize all of his personal files only to be outdone by Hoover's faithful staffer, Helen Gandy. Like Oliver Stone's Nixon (which saw Bob Hoskins play Hoover) before it, there's a gruesome yet fascinating similarity between both men that bears closer and more in depth observation - how they persevered to achieve the heights of their respective offices having both felt slighted by their contemporaries, superiors and supposed betters as well as their bullying styles which saw them shut everyone out  and their desire to record everything possible in finite detail - but this too chooses to only briefly address these mutual characteristics. 

Where J. Edgar totally succeeds is in the strong performance of its leading man, Leonardo DiCaprio. Having long since abandoned his 1990s teenage pin up status, DiCaprio continues to prove his fearlessness in tackling meaty roles that could potentially alienate his core audience. It's an admirable way to tackle one's career and it continues to pay dividends,marking Leo out as this generation's most interesting film star. Perhaps naturally given the nature of the film and his performance, much of the supporting cast fall in his shadow with Naomi Watts as Mrs Gandy and Armie Hammer as Tolson often just marking time. Neither actor are helped by heavy latex to suggest their later years (it seems like the budget went on Leo's alone) and Hammer's turn as the aged Tolson is too caricatured and cliched to convince. Judi Dench offers a brief yet enjoyable cameo as Hoover's mother but there's not enough for her to get between her teeth and seems to offer little more than an approach that fills the Judi Dench sized holes in the script. Her finest moment is in the heartless recounting of the fate a childhood friend of Hoover's endured following his outing as a transvestite. It's a scene that sends chills down your spine as it becomes clear Mrs Hoover, and her generation, cannot tolerate such 'deficiencies' in character. 

Eastwood's film is typically Eastwood, though its miles better than the dull Hereafter, and has some old charm appeal but one cannot help but wonder how much livelier and more visceral such a biopic could have been in the hands of a director like Oliver Stone, Martin Scorsese or even Steven Soderbergh.

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