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Thursday, Nov. 17, 2011 03:44 pm

J. Edgar paints an incomplete portrait

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Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover in J. Edgar.

“Sentimental” would probably not be the first word one would use to describe famed FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. However, after seeing Clint Eastwood’s curious biography of this tenacious bulldog of a man, you can’t help but feel a twinge of sympathy for him, a sentiment that runs counter to most people’s opinion. To be sure, charges that Hoover abused his power and fell victim to his overriding paranoia, compelling him to exceed the purview of his office, seem warranted. However, the reasons behind this behavior are laid bare here. They offer a tragic portrait of man who lived a life of repression and lashed out in frustration at those who were willing to exist on their own terms.

J. Edgar employs a basic structure in which to plumb its subject’s past. Hoover dictates an informal history of the FBI, and in effect a biography of himself, to a variety of junior agents. Inside this structure, the film is able to slide back and forth from the “present” of the late 1960s and early 1970s, to the various other decades in which Hoover held sway over the agency. We see early on the major events that forged the young man into an unyielding moral paragon. In witnessing an act of terrorism on a superior’s home, Hoover’s iron resolve to maintain law and order takes shape. It’s his mother (Judi Dench) who instills in him the sense of moral judgment that would lead to his personal doom. Saying “I’d rather have a dead son than a weak one,” it’s obvious the effect her special brand of nurturing had on him.

So this is the Hoover, having just been named director of the FBI and damaged by an ever-present fear of moral failure, who meets Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), an Adonis in a three-piece suit. The FBI director immediately recruits and hires Tolson as his right-hand man. Soon they’re inseparable, fighting crime side-by-side and even vacationing together. Upon Hoover’s death, Tolson was revealed to be the sole beneficiary of his estate, which lent credence to the suggestion that the two were closeted lovers.

Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) would be remiss if they did not examine these rumors and they do so only once, in a scene in which Tolson explodes over Hoover’s involvement with actress Dorothy Lamour. Black leaves little doubt as to which side of the fence he falls on regarding this issue. He shows these two entering into an agreement in which their affection remains unspoken and their relationship remains unconsummated.

This is a middle-of-the-road approach to this issue, one that Eastwood adopts throughout. While we see Hoover’s power and abuse of it grow, the director seemingly excuses these actions, positing that his life of repression was to blame for his anger and paranoia. This all seems a bit too easy and the film suffers for it. Instead of being a story with teeth, it ends up being a serviceable and mildly engaging biopic. In the title role, Leonardo DiCaprio delivers another masterful performance, conveying a great deal of emotion through his eyes under a dodgy makeup job. Yet his turn, as edgy as it is, runs counter to the film’s regrettably safe and ultimately cold tone.

Contact Chuck Koplinski at ckoplinski@usd116.org.

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