Movie Reviews

J. Edgar: A man trapped in his own prison

By Zul AndraMovies - 14 February 2012 10:42 AM | Updated 11:26 AM

J. Edgar: A man trapped in his own prison

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Ratings: 3 out of 5 stars 

Relentless in his pursuit for lawfulness and abhorred for his hardliner ways, America’s first and longest serving Director of the FBI, John Edgar Hoover’s battles for justice in the mean streets of the early 20s and struggles with his own dark alleyways is dramatized in this biopic directed by Clint Eastwood.

Straight out of university, Edgar rose to power within a span of 5 short years by doing what no man in his position would –by all means necessary, to get the job done; even if it took executing the lesser of two evils.

From creating the country’s first collection of fingerprint files and investigation laboratory, to deporting political radicals and arresting prominent mobs and criminals like famed bank robber John Dillinger, Edgar had a hand in all accounts -evolving the FBI into the most feared anti-criminal department the country has ever seen.

But Hoover didn’t get to where he was by being the nice guy. He had no qualms firing his best agents because they didn’t look the part, and played a dangerous leverage game. From blackmailing politicians and rumour-mongering in the media, Hoover was steadfast in discarding those who directly or indirectly posed a threat to his Bureau’s ambition and his reputation.

Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal as Hoover is enough to garner viewership, but it’s in his balancing act between the prolific figure’s unquenchable thirst for fame and power, and private life that gave the film its intensive depth.

Though not DiCaprio’s finest dramatic performance since “Revolutionary Road” (with Kate Winslet),   he rightfully deserved the Golden Globe and Screen Actors Guild Awards nominations for his role. Moving from a powerful figure of authority to a distressed homosexual vying for his mother’s (Judi Dench) approval, DiCaprio latches on our empathy when he fights against his cross-dressing tendencies and quickly evokes loathe in his tailored FBI suit.

It wasn’t only about how the man policed a nation almost single-handedly, but also how he does the same, if not with more brutality, towards the people closest to him. Outwardly heartless towards his loyal deputy and lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and unwaveringly demanding towards his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), both took the most punches during his illustrious career.

“Do I kill everything that I loved?” asks a teary aged-old Hoover to Gandy.

Creating his own prison built on power and fame, he realizes that he has degraded those that cared for him to nothing but puppets for his cause.

Eastwood threads Dustin Lance Black’s (“Milk”) masterful script carefully, but it is also in the director’s drearily fastidious style that gave the 2 hour and 17 minute film its most noticeable flaw.

Cutting to and fro between Hoover’s post-FBI efforts to his final days, Eastwood compacted more than 50 years of the man’s life by humanizing the man that made the institution and lionizing the institution that divided the man.

Eastwood might have realized that he didn’t had time to tell it all, and instead chose to quickly cut to the juicier bits but came off as disjointed with each scene dreadfully slow-paced.

The “dead-air” effect found in Eastwood’s draggy scenes might have worked for his other directorial effort in “Mystic River” to build suspense, but for dramas like these (also noticeable in “Million Dollar Baby” and Invictus”), it’ll require some form of effort to stick through the film when the drag comes on.

The aging make-up done by Alessandro Bertolazzi on Watts (who worked with her on “Dream House”) and Sian Grigg on DiCaprio (almost all of his films) looked exaggerated and questionable. Save for Hammer’s commanding play as an elder who loses his coordination and speech ability due to stroke, the rest, even DiCaprio seemed “put-on” at times.

It’s easy to write off this film as one for the Clint Eastwood’s directorial DVD shelf, but there are mesmerizing elements in DiCaprio’s gripping Hoover portrayal and Eastwood’s attention to the historical figure’s personal struggles (though studio executives from Warner Brothers would have tampered with) that makes it a worthy watch.