Review by Gordon Justesen
Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench
Director: Clint Eastwood
Audio: DTS HD 5.1
Video: Anamorphic Widescreen 2.40:1
Studio: Warner Bros.
Features: See Review
Length: 137 Minutes
Release Date: February 21, 2012
“What's important at this time is to re-clarify the difference between hero and villain.”
J. Edgar Hoover is, without question, one of the most celebrated figures in American history. He also happens to be the most controversial. It's interesting to consider that his life paralleled that of Richard Nixon since he, like many politicians of that ever, had nothing but distaste for Hoover.
Though Hoover has been portrayed on screen before several times, most notably by Bob Hoskins in Oliver Stone's Nixon and Billy Crudup in Michael Mann's Public Enemies, director Clint Eastwood is credited with delivering the biggest cinematic portrait of the man responsible for establishing the Federal Bureau of Investigations. And we have no less than the amazingly gifted Leonardo DiCaprio bringing the historical figure to life.
Those two factors should guarantee a remarkable film. Both Eastwood and DiCaprio have been delivering nothing but solid work with their individual efforts for the past ten years. And while it doesn't quite achieve that level, there is certainly plenty here to make this film worth your time, especially if you're at all curious about the man himself.
The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, who penned the Oscar-winning script for Milk, has most of the story's events recollected from an elderly Hoover, who is having a writer put together a book on how the FBI came to be. His story begins in 1919, when his boss and then Attorney General, A. Mitchell Palmer, survives an assassination attempt the very same night communist radicals had targeted several other high profile figures such as John Rockefeller and J.P. Morgan. Hoover paid witness to the crime scene investigation outside Palmer's home, found it primitive and felt right then and there that a change was needed.
It isn't long after that when Hoover, having put into motion a series of deportations of radical groups following the deportation of anarchist Emma Goldman, is made director of the Justice Department's Bureau of Investigations. This was 1924. By 1935, he will have changed it's name by applying the word “Federal”.
The film is downright brilliant in how it reminds us of the many revolutionary breakthroughs in criminal investigating Hoover was responsible for. If it weren't for him, the idea of applying science to the art of pursuing criminals may never have been thought of, as would that of finger print analysis. And if you just so happen to be a huge fan of any of the many incarnations of the TV show, CSI, you should be thanking no one but Mr. Hoover!
As for his personal life, well that's where the real mystery lies. He was raised mostly by his domineering mother (Judi Dench), whom he would often turn to in stressful times. And he appear to express interest in women, as seen in a most awkward first date with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who instead of becoming a life partner became Hoover's personal secretary.
The film does play upon the many rumors of Hoover being a closeted homosexual by establishing a relationship between him and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The two men were pretty much inseparable, as Tolson was also Hoover's right hand man in terms of agency maneuvers. And if these rumors are true, the one and only conclusion to draw is that Hoover, who refused to hire gays as agents and had many secret files on the sex lives of every prominent public figure, was as complex as any person could get.
As mentioned earlier, the film is far from the great, Oscar-contender it should be. The film is quite slowly paced, which isn't so much a problem for me but I can see it being one for others. There are also points where the film feels slightly unfocused, as there are times when it's unclear what the film is more concerned with, the personal life of Hoover or the public/professional.
And there is one final flaw I can't leave alone. The make up work on this film is for the most part fantastic. Seeing DiCaprio and Watts in their character's elderly period was at times stunning to the eye, to the point where I swore I was witnessing an 80-something year old Leonardo DiCaprio move before me.
However, the age make up used for Armie Hammer suggested to me that the make up department had run out of money, and had to do the best job they could with what was left. I say this simply because Hammer's make up work looks horrendously unfinished. But since we don't see much of the elderly Hammer as we do that of DiCaprio, it doesn't add up to a complete distraction.
Lastly on the flaw list, I felt that Naomi Watts was slightly underused. To be fair, this is merely a personal complaint because I could literally stare at Ms. Watts for days.
But those flaws are more than made up for by the strengths of the film, starting with the top notch performances. DiCaprio, once again, displays a brilliant piece of acting in bringing to life a truly complex man in Hoover. Armie Hammer, who had a breakout dual role in The Social Network as the Winkelvoss twins, is most memorable as Hoover's closest companion. And in the few scenes she has, Judi Dench delivers another performance with her profound potent effect.
And while this might not rank with the greatest of his recent directorial efforts like Mystic River and Changeling, Eastwood still manages to deliver quite a powerful biopic with his signature style. And there were times where I actually did learn quite a bit, most notably in the section of the film dealing with how the Lindbergh Law came to be. J. Edgar may not have added up to the great film we were hoping for, but it remains far too good and important to dismiss!
This Blu-ray release from Warner makes grand use of Eastwood's neat directorial trademarks such as heavy darks and shadows, and a palette almost ridden of traditional color. But even amidst those unconventional qualities, the level of detail is still fantastic! Like all of Eastwood's recent directorial work, the darkened imagery perfectly mirrors the dark portions of the story. The time period of the 20's on up to the 60s looks nothing short of outstanding in the 1080p (and to think the film only cost a mere $35 million to make).
This is mainly a dialogue-driven piece, but every spoken word is heard in fantastic form courtesy of the DTS HD 5.1 mix. There are some occasional bursts of gunshots, and though they are quite brief these scenes do provide the highlights of the presentation, sound-wise. Eastwood does provide a piano infused score to the film, though the score here is not as frequently heard as it usually is in his films.
The only feature included on this Blu-ray release is actually a well-handled, 18 minute piece titled, “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World”, which does offer a good deal insight into both the man and the film, courtesy of interviews with cast and crew members, as well as various historians.
This Combo Pack release also comes with a bonus DVD copy of the movie, which also includes an UltraViolet streaming Digital Copy!
Though flawed in portions, J. Edgar is nonetheless another exceptional piece of filmmaking from the one and only Clint Eastwood. Leonardo DiCaprio's performance alone is enough to recommend the film, and his performance is easily the main attraction!