November 18, 2011
Movie Reviewers, The Friday Flyer
Not too long ago, the name J. Edgar Hoover was synonymous with the FBI (and trench coats). He built and led the Bureau for almost a half century as the most respected and feared man in America, by good and bad guys alike. He may be the source of the quip, “It’s not what you know and not who you know, but what you know about who you know.”
No matter what you’ve heard, he was initially the ultimate American patriot. Early in his career, nobody demonstrated more conviction, initiative and commitment to eradicating crime and protecting our nation. In one of his finest performances to date, Leonardo DiCaprio captures this complex figure driven by the competing forces of good and evil.
It’s also a love story, even if the dude was kind of a drag. It would have been easy for producer/director Clint Eastwood to demonize this narcissistic power monger who kept secret files on political enemies as well as friends (just in case). Worse yet, Hoover held deep dark secrets about himself. He understood early on that information is power.
This docudrama is brilliant but no threat to “The King’s Speech.” Although it’s a compelling story of a flawed historical figure, it’s not overpowering. For those with a prior interest, it is perfectly enjoyable. This benevolent dictator strived to become a one-man judge, jury and executioner with two ways of doing things – his way and the wrong way.
Interestingly, Eastwood doesn’t attempt to sway us for or against the man. Instead of the heavy handed treatment of an Oliver Stone, Eastwood presents the totality of this complex man. Hoover somehow lived for the personal and professional limelight while continuously hiding in the shadows. You might say Eastwood brings the legend to justice.
Told in a series of flashbacks over a period of seven decades, Eastwood films with a monochromatic tone and writes a well-paced musical score to exemplify this quality period piece. In 1919, a 24-year-old Hoover is already a veteran of the Department of Justice. He has given considerable thought to advanced investigative techniques. And, he’s obsessed with the Bolshevik movement overtaking our government and way of life.
With no friends or social life, Hoover is single focused. His high energy is exceeded only by his organizational skills and methodical approach to solving crimes. Before his 30th birthday, Hoover is named director of what will become the FBI. His agents must be college graduates and of high moral character, but loyalty will be their most valued trait.
Hoover creates the first forensic labs (“CSI” thanks him), introduces a centralized fingerprint data base and eventually learns the use of wire taps – legal and otherwise. But, he could be that much better with increased powers. So, Hoover exploits the Lindbergh baby case and prohibition-era gangsters to battle enemies, both real and imagined.
Hoover was hyper-critical of anyone not fitting his high moral standards, yet he was rumored to have been a closet homosexual and cross dresser. He destroyed those who attempted to tarnish his or the FBI’s image, which he intertwined. Not totally analogous, but Dwight Shrupe on TV’s “The Office” complained about security, “I came to work with my spud-gun and sat all day at my desk with a rifle. Can you imagine if I was deranged?”
“J. Edgar” is a fascinating 137 minutes and rated R for brief strong language. Direction is tight and the remarkable actors supporting the nuanced DiCaprio include Judi Dench, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer (“Social Network”) whose great-grandfather, tycoon Armand Hammer, was once accused by Hoover of being a Soviet sympathizer.
No history buff should miss this low key character study of the mysterious dark knight. The top cop was admired and feared, reviled and revered. But, the G-Man allowed himself to suspect that Martin Luther King was a degenerate radical and America’s greatest threat, which proved once and for all that “nothing sucks like a Hoover.”
Ron’s Rating: B Leigh’s Rating: C+
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