J. Edgar (2011)

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*. As the subject of a biopic, J. Edgar Hoover isn’t bad. He had a long life and was closely involved in major historical events, with connections to many key power players. He was also someone who knew a lot of secrets, and kept a lot of secrets about himself. This is fruitful ground for a filmmaker.
*. On the other hand, he was a secretive, uncharismatic, and indeed slightly repellent figure. Like many such people when they become famous, he blamed the media for the fact that the public didn’t love him. It’s hard for a big Hollywood production to find that a sympathetic point of view.
*. Sometimes the greatest, most intense drama can be found in stories of silence and repression. That said, I think Roger Ebert was right in saying that with Hoover the chilling possibility is that what you saw was what you got. Was there anything in him to be repressed, or was he just a corporate suit?
*. For me, the moments that hint at Hoover’s repressed feelings (his calling out to Colson after their fight, putting on his mother’s dress after her death, and seeking absolution from Helen Gandy) never quite ring true, as expressions of genuine feeling, calls for help, or self-dramatization.

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*. Is it just that Hoover (and Tolson, and Gandy) were drawn to power, and were willing to sacrifice deeper human connections in order to experience and exercise it?
*. I don’t blame Leonardo DiCaprio for any of the film’s failings. He’s very good here, even when totally unrecognizable under layers of make-up as an old man. I get the sense that Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black just couldn’t decide on who their Hoover was going to be (or didn’t want to decide), and so left a lot of things ambiguous.
*. What’s with the lighting? So many scenes seem to be taking place in the dark, with characters mostly in shadow. I suppose it may be meant to have some thematic significance – there are scenes when Hoover is intent on drawing the curtains, or is disturbed by sunlight – but after a while I kept hoping someone would get up and turn the lights on.
*. Complementing the lighting goes the washed-out colour scheme, a pallette full of greys and browns and blacks. I guess before colour the world was a colourless place, or at best sepia-toned.
*. The uniformity of the colour scheme highlights a problem I had with the movie’s feel for history. Hoover’s FBI career spanned nearly fifty years, but it all looks and feels the same here. That is, it looks like the 1920s and ’30s. Hoover and Tolson get older, but their world doesn’t. Yes, the movie is full of a lot of interiors, many of them institutional, but even in the late ’60s I was still feeling like we were back in the Prohibition era.
*. Perhaps part of the problem is the chronlogical montage. Time doesn’t pass in a linear fashion but rather swirls around some indeterminate sense of the past. There’s nothing wrong with this approach (though framing it through the device of having Hoover dictating his memoirs is a bit creaky), but it perhaps made Eastwood reluctant to clearly distinguish all of the different periods he was covering.
*. I can’t help feeling a great opportunity (and a great performance by DiCaprio) were wasted here, that an opportunity was missed. Hoover led a life that was profoundly relevant to our own: someone who foreshadowed the whole NSA, “information is power,” and end-of-privacy era.
*. This material really belongs to Oliver Stone, who would have taken the themes of paranoia and abuse of power and run with them (as he did in JFK and Nixon). Eastwood doesn’t appear to be that interested in this angle, or to know what to make of it.
*. It looks great, and is clearly the work of talented professionals. But it never manages to engage with its subject, or kick into another gear, either in its few action scenes or any of the dramatic climaxes and revelations. Perhaps Hoover didn’t lead a passionate life, but I think a project like this needs a more passionate vision to inform it.

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