Dir. by Clint Eastwood - 2 hrs. 17 min.
by Clayton Hollifield
At this time of the year, it seems like most of the movies turn very, very serious. Part of that is the Oscar-bait strategy (as in, no one remembers what came out in January). "J. Edgar" is no exception to that strategy. It's a very serious biography (of a sort) film of the man who brought legitimacy to the FBI. I have to admit that, while I enjoyed the movie quite a bit, I think that I would have enjoyed it more if I wasn't staring down the prospect of two months of ultra-serious, heavy films, placed primely for awards. That might not seem fair to director Clint Eastwood or "J. Edgar," but no film exists in a vacuum.
Depending on how much you know about J. Edgar Hoover (and the opinions that you might hold of him, based on how much you know), you might be surprised with the restraint that Eastwood shows here. Hoover was, to put it simply, a complicated man. He was also a driven man with few friends, and was highly successful in taking the FBI from an organization with a lowly reputation to one of the most highly-funded organizations in all of government. He was an early pioneer of finger-printing and forensic science as crime-solving tools. One of the aspects that this movie captures is that Hoover didn't do that through straight-up means; he held secret files on many notable Americans, and didn't seem shy about using the dirt contained within to extract favors from whomever he wanted to. And also, the movie speculates on why Hoover didn't trust much of anyone, and why he never married over the course of his life.
This is a pretty well-rounded portrayal of a man who may not have deserved as much empathy as this film offers him. There many times where Hoover toes or crosses lines to get done what he wants done, and he comes off like a petty tyrant at times. At the same time, it's clear that he truly believed in what he was doing, which is probably why he was willing to go to the extremes that he did. If you despise being lied to by politicians, your stomach might curdle as some of the things that Hoover did as an un-elected official.
The best traits of this film are exactly what you'd think they might be going in. Leonardo DiCaprio does a good job with the character, humanizing someone who has become a bit of a caricature in history. Clint Eastwood's direction is also outstanding, implying and nudging the story along without hitting you over the head. It's a movie that asks you to pay attention, and rewards you for doing so with details that really enhance the story. And the central figure to the movie, J. Edgar Hoover, is a compelling, secretive figure that could use a little light shed on.
And if you really enjoy historical biography films, this is going to be right up your alley. It's quality through and through, another hit for Clint Eastwood. It's not his finest work, but it's also pretty damned good for something that's not in a director's top tier of work. I don't want to short-change that in any way. But in a larger sense, it also feels like the beginning of a season of films that take themselves very seriously.
3.5 / 5 - Theatre