Undeniably, J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most haunted and hallowed, fascinating, yet fundamentally flawed politicos of the 20th century. Hoover's shadowy world of 'man behind the curtain' secrets has left too much of a gap in the public memoir of his private life, and interpretations of the man and his methods have veered wildly into pure speculation since his death: everything from closeted homosexual to power mad puppet master whose own dictates came before even those of the various presidents Hoover served under. Despite these discrepancies, virtually all agree on one fact about the man - he was a legend to be feared in his own time. And now comes Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar (2011); a movie that is supposed to decrypt the myth and help transform that legend back into a man whose passions and proclivities we will be able, not only to understand, but appreciate and admire...well...sort of. The trouble with this narrative approach is that like all men of vision, decoding Hoover's DNA isn't as black and white as the film would have us believe.
We first meet Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in his later years, dictating his memoirs to a writer (Ed Westwick). The film makes much of the extreme guarded atmosphere inside the director's office, with only his ever loyal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) allowed into the inner sanctum for consultations and critiques. We regress, in flashback to 1919 when Justice Department Attorney Gen. A. Mitchell Palmer's (Geoff Pierson) brownstone is bombed. Immediately following this assassination attempt Hoover is put in charge of a new anti-radical division. Insatiably driven, Hoover begins to amass a list of suspected communists and communist sympathizers.
As he builds his roster of handpicked talent, Hoover introduces himself to Helen, singling her out from the steno pool with a mild flirtation. But his attempt to procure a romance with her inside the Library of Congress is feeble and awkward at best. Sensing his desperation, Helen politely declines Hoover's spontaneous proposal of marriage. However, she does accept his offer of employment to be his private secretary. Hoover hopes to instigate a mass deportation of foreign radicals. But the Department of Labor refuses to comply with his terms unless there is clear evidence of a crime. Taking his cue from the Commissioner Gen., Anthony Caminetti (Jack Axelrod), Hoover has anarchist, Emma Goldman's (Jessica Hecht) life put under a microscope. She is called to testify before a committee. Her refusal to answer any and all questions gets her deported. Palmer loses his job, but Hoover gains an ally in Attorney Gen. Harlan Stone (Ken Howard) who basically gives Hoover free reign to pursue his agenda of developing a mass profiling apparatus inside the Justice Department.
Hoover is socially introduced to Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) at a restaurant. Admiring Clyde's suit and tie, and doing a quick background check on him, Hoover hires Tolson without much reservation. Clyde has Hoover done over in style, the two men spending a great deal of time together outside of the office. Much has been made of this 'relationship' between Hoover and Tolson - but the suggestion that the two had a lifelong homosexual affair in real life is wholly unfounded and never fully explored on the screen. Hoover's FBI branch of the Justice Department hits the ground running and has success bringing gangsters and bank robbers to heed before the strong arm of the law. But when Charles Lindbergh's (Josh Lucas) baby is kidnapped Hoover is generally cast aside by the presiding authorities and perceived as an interloper in the investigation. After the baby's body is discovered, Hoover gets more clout under his wing to establish the crime lab - a precursor to modern day forensics.
So far, the Dustin Lance Black screenplay has relied on what we know about Hoover to tell a fairly straight forward story. But now we delve into a very gray area of creative license, full of tawdry speculation and diluted innuendos. Hoover, his mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench) and Tolson go to a Shirley Temple movie. But afterward the three wind up at a nightclub where Ginger Rogers (Jamie LaBarber) suggests a flirtation. She is quickly shot down by Hoover in her efforts. Anna picks up on her son's awkwardness with women and later attempts to teach him how to dance, telling Hoover that she would rather he die than become a 'daffodil'. To break these tensions and those ever mounting at work, Hoover and Tolson go on a vacation together that ends with Tolson kissing Hoover in his bedroom. The men brawl and Hoover tells Tolson that it must never happen again. But when Tolson tries to leave, Hoover begs him to stay. Owing to his 'affections' for his boss, Tolson reluctantly agrees to remain as Hoover's right hand.
The film has reached a crossroads in its artistic interpretation. It has a choice, to either forge ahead at an even keel or skip through the catalogue of historical moments yet to be unearthed. Unfortunately, it chooses the latter option rather than the former. The years pass and Hoover begins to feel his own physical strength on the decline. Tolson suffers a stroke. Hoover attempts to manipulate Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) with knowledge acquired from an illegal wire tap that the President is having an affair. He also tries to blackmail Martin Luther King into rejecting his Nobel Peace Prize. Kennedy is assassinated and we move into Hoover's Nixon years at the White House.
These latter two incidents are laid out at the beginning and the end of the film, presumably to bolster the 'absolute power corrupts' narrative thread gently woven just beneath the surface of the main plot. Tolson appeals to Hoover that the time has come for his retirement from the FBI. But Hoover is recklessly driven to remain in power, claiming that Richard Nixon will dismantle his beloved bureau if he leaves office. The final moments of the film are dedicated to life after Hoover, with Helen quietly destroying volumes of 'hidden' files, presumably extolling the less than admirable aspects of the late director's enduring legacy.
J. Edgar has its moments, and certainly there is much to admire in Leonardo DiCaprio's emblematic performance as the mastermind behind the FBI. DiCaprio's take on this tragically conflicted man is restrained and intelligent. Regrettably, there's just too much of J.Edgar - the man - for J. Edgar - the movie - to cover. While the first half of the film takes its time exploring both the man and the myth, the latter two thirds simply hop around from one vignette to the next, lacking in any sort of cohesiveness to draw the viewer in for more than just a few minutes at a time. We also don't get much continuity from the Dustin Lance Black screenplay. It starts off fairly strong and even paced but winds up omitting whole portions of history after the Lindburgh baby episode. As such, J. Edgar - the movie - plays like a three hour 'would be' epic that has had its last two thirds brutally paired down by unskilled edits.
And then there is Tom Stern's cinematography to contend with - too dark and too stylized to fit the time period. For a moment I thought I was looking at an image shot by one hit wonder Janusz Kaminski (Honestly, every film that guy photographs looks like a badly faded postcard). But I digress. This film's cinematic landscape is oppressive to say the least, with desaturated colors and blown out contrasts that make the entire image look like a good exercise in bad Photoshop or just a really bad colorized movie via Ted Turner. The palette favors minty greens, nondescript navies, muddy browns and - ah yes - a splash of ruddy orange for flesh tones. But the spectacle of it all, dare I say it - yes, the gaiety - from that period - and indeed the flamboyance of Americana circa (1940-1960) is entirely lacking herein. J. Edgar offers some well interpreted nuances that deconstruct the mystery behind the man, but in the final analysis the film is a well-tailored exercise in restrictive mannerisms rather than an all-out investigation of J. Edgar Hoover and his enduring legacy.
Warner Home Video's Blu-ray gives a solid representation of the theatrical experience. Tom Stern's cinematography is well served in 1080p. As mentioned elsewhere in this review, the desaturated color palette is limited and often murky, but that's as it was intended to be. It's difficult to assess visual accuracy or inaccuracy when the image is so heavily stylized as this. Again, this is a very - VERY - dark film; both figuratively and literally. Even so, the Blu-ray manages to capture minute detail. The audio is Tru-HD 7.1. This is a primarily dialogue driven movie, so don't expect that your speakers will be given a workout. The few loud moments that do exist in the film impress and dialogue is very natural sounding across all channels. Extras are limited to one: a measly twelve minute critique of Hoover - the man.
FILM RATING (out of 5 - 5 being the best)