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Biopic of J. Edgar Hoover told by Hoover as he recalls his career for a biography. Early in his career, Hoover fixated on Communists, anarchists and any other revolutionary taking action against the U.S. government. He slowly builds the agency's reputation, becoming the sole arbiter of who gets hired and fired. One of his hires is Clyde Tolson who is quickly promoted to Assistant Director and would be Hoover's confidant and companion for the rest of Hoover's life. Hoover's memories have him playing a greater role in the many high profile cases the FBI was involved in - the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the arrest of bank robbers like John Dillinger - and also show him to be quite adept at manipulating the various politicians he's worked with over his career, thanks in large part to his secret files. Written by
Clint Eastwood is famous for shooting the screenplays he directs almost verbatim, not making changes. Dustin Lance Black has admitted he didn't like that, arguing he loves to discuss the screenplay with the director and improving it together with suggestions. See more »
While J Edgar eats dinner at home with his mother and his niece, the niece's fork arm changes positions several times between shots, resulting in a vanishing carrot that eventually gets eaten twice. See more »
J. Edgar Hoover:
Let me tell you something. The SCLC has direct Communist ties. Even great men can be corrupted, can't they? Communism is not a political party. It is a disease. It corrupts the soul, turning men, even the gentlest of men, into vicious evil tyrants.
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I never imagined I would see a Clint Eastwood film where I would look at my watch before the first hour was even up, but alas the day has come
It can happen to the best of us. Spielberg, Scorsese, Hitchcock, and even Clint Eastwood himself are capable of making an instantly-dismissible picture. Sometimes, it seems, a director will find himself in a project without much of a passion for it and looking at the final product, it's kind of hard to see his signature on the screen. That is the case with Mr. Eastwood's biopic on the life of J. Edgar Hoover. The movie, "J. Edgar", is everything I did not expect from Mr. Eastwood considering the deep, thought-provocative and artistic power of his last movie "Hereafter" as well as the many films that he made beforehand. Slow, pretentious, and middling.
Many actors have played the infamous FBI founder over the years (once by Hoover himself, in the 1959 James Stewart movie "The FBI Story"). This time, the role goes to Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, it seems, his feelings about the movie seemed to be identical to Mr. Eastwood's, as he merely ham-acts throughout the entirety of the movie. The only thing differentiating his performance from scene-to-scene depends on how much phony make-up has been slapped on his face. It's sort of like a "Citizen Kane" portrait of a real-life figure, starting around the time of the man's death and whisking back and forth between the past and the present. Except whereas that great Orson Welles film from seventy years ago did it with precision and aesthetic greatness, the narrative of "J. Edgar" takes such vast leaps that it frequently falls flat on its face.
The screenplay was written by Dustin Lance Black, who won the Oscar for Best Screenplay for "Milk." Once again, he more or less writes this story more as a vessel for a homosexual romance and rights message. And it is here that he strikes his intended gold. Hoover's lover, his right-hand man Clyde Tolson, is played with immense passion by Armie Hammer. And it is the scenes between Mr. Hammer and Mr. DiCaprio that work. A particularly great scene involves the two secret lovers sharing a dinner table with some flirtatious Hollywood starlets and nervously trying to shake off the ladies' sexual advances without giving themselves away. Also fascinating and frightful is a confrontation about homosexuality between Mr. DiCaprio and Judi Dench as Hoover's mother.
So it is in this soulful subplot that Mr. Black's screenplay works, but when he tries to form a narrative arc about the lifetime of J. Edgar Hoover and bounce across decades in a coherent manner, it starts to struggle. Furthermore, apart from the love subplot, there is no chemistry between the characters. Naomi Watts, as Hoover's secretary, is given such insignificant things to do that she may as well have been an extra.
Earlier I mentioned that a passionless project even by a great director, will appear to lose its creators' signature and that is no more evident than in here. Mr. Eastwood's directing, though hardly bad, is rather dull with too many long shots and ponderous slow zooms. And while Leonardo DiCaprio was an inspired choice to play J. Edgar Hoover, he does it almost playfully, without much soul or conviction. Most embarrassing of all is the forced accent with which he enunciates the dialogue. Capped with some truly horrific make-up, when playing the elderly Hoover, the actor appears to be giving a comic stand-up performance at a nightclub. Reputedly, Mr. DiCaprio spent five hours every morning having the prosthetics applied to his face when playing the older version of the character. All I can say is that they should have spent at least six, for the make-up looks like exactly what it is. And the stuff put on Mr. Hammer for his old-guy moments makes him look like he belongs in a 30s Universal horror film.
Just as frightful as the makeup is the hack-job cinematography by Tom Stern. Yes, the same Tom Stern who has lit beautiful images for many of Clint Eastwood's earlier films, including "Changeling" for which he deservedly earned an Academy Award nomination. Mr. Stern's specialty seems to be in low-key lighting. Last year, he did a fabulous job catching the mood of "Hereafter" with clever use of shadows and silhouetting lights. But here, he goes overboard. The shadows in "J. Edgar" are so amateurish and monstrous that (I kid you not) the actors sometime disappear in them. If there is a symbolic purpose behind this, I cannot think of it. And other times, the lights are too soft. Close-ups of characters make them appear to be covered with flour and worst of all is when the camera tracks into a dark room and auto-adjusts to the new light...much like a home-video camera.
I never imagined I would see a Clint Eastwood film where I would look at my watch impatiently before the first hour was even up, but alas the day has come. "J. Edgar" is a dimwitted, passionless project that brings almost nothing to our previous knowledge about the formation of the FBI and the men who made it all possible. Only a couple of sharp, provocative moments from Dustin Lance Black's screenplay really stand out. Now Clint Eastwood has made five or six masterpieces during his forty-year career as a director and about twice as many great films, so despite my disappointment, I am prepared to allow this one to fade from my memory.
Not that that would be very hard. If J. Edgar Hoover had a file cabinet labeled 'Instantly Forgettable,' that is where this film would have gone.
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