Wednesday, 11 January 2012


Warner Bros. Films
Now Showing

If windows are the eyes to the soul, then J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, possessed a very dark soul indeed. As effectively portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, Hoover's eyes are a beady black, revealing very little white and nary a glint as though in a permanent squint; always thinking, always analysing people and situations.

Perhaps that made him the best candidate to found the organisation which treated crime fighting as more than a job but a science. Of course, it would too easily explain why such a man - one with a zeal for justice and a strong anti-communist bent - would abuse the power of the office he held for some 50 years.

J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's biopic penned by Oscar-winning scribe (for Milk, 2008) Dustin Lance Black, serves as a potted history of the United States in the first half of the 20th century, as well as a study of a man who dedicated his life to his work and success at all costs; leaving little time for a social life, friends or lovers.

Other than his mother (a vinegary Judi Dench), the only people Hoover takes into his confidence are his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who rebuffs his marriage proposal but proceeds to loyally man his office for five decades, and Clyde Tolson (a dapper Armie Hammer), a law graduate who fast becomes Hoover's #2 man in the office and his #1 man away from it. (The film does everything to suggest the two men were "in love" if not lovers.)

Much like the man himself, J. Edgar is torn between what it is and what it wants to be: a study of a complicated man whose public life was at cross purposes with his private emotions. And much of that confusion stems as much from Black's screenplay as it does the historical figure himself, for while Hoover's official life was a matter of public record, his personal life remains purely speculative.

Black's and Eastwood's handling of the Edgar-Tolson relationship is, for the most part, as coy as the two men themselves; Hammer's Tolsen looks at DiCaprio's Hoover with undisguised admiration, a goofy smile always upon his face. And while they may dine together twice a day, every day, and occasionally hold hands, there ain't nothing dirty going on.

But those intimate moments we do witness, including one melodoramatic moment in a hotel room, but particularly in the men's old age - the film spans 50-odd years, flashing back and forth as Hoover recounts his story to a succession of handsome young FBI agents - hints at an altogether different, more interesting film.

Eastwood's handling of the political aspects of Hoover's career and impact, however, are less successful. When Hoover meets with the sitting U.S. president - he served eight of them, keeping secret files on each - the effect is almost laughable; President Nixon (Christopher Shyer) and Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) are borderline pantomime caricatures. Other notable events, such as the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, are similarly unconvincing.

Still, as a film attempting to examine the human side of a reviled conservative political figure, J. Edgar is more successful than the recent The Iron Lady, where Meryl Streep brilliantly portrayed an aged Margaret Thatcher but which saw director, Phyllida Lloyd, and screenwriter, Abi Morgan, skimp on the British PM's less than perfect time in office and the socio-political fallout.

Whether J. Edgar paints a sympathetic portrait of a reviled man, one who attempted to blackmail Dr Martin Luther King (whom he deemed an enemy of the State) to prevent him accepting the Nobel Peace Prize, may well depend on your politics. For mine, Eastwood and Black's even-handedness sees Hoover remain unlikeable if not entirely evil, black beady eyes not withstanding.

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