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J. Edgar

A biographical movie directed by Clint Eastwood

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He Had the Power

  • Nov 10, 2011
Star Rating:

Leonardo DiCaprio has proven himself a masterful actor, but his performance in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is sure to put him on the same shelf as Sean Penn, Meryl Streep, Viggo Mortensen, Johnny Depp, and Christian Bale – actors who inhabit their roles so convincingly that the real person essentially disappears. As J. Edgar Hoover, who became the head of the FBI in 1924 and remained so until his death in 1972, DiCaprio thoroughly captures the look, the mannerisms, the voice, and the personality. We see a man who took his public image as seriously as his job, as made abundantly clear by a scene late in the film, in which key events in his life are disputed. It’s actually rather cleverly handled. It’s a matter of perception; what others see in you may not be as interesting as how you see yourself.
The film is structured as a meandering narrative, freely shifting back and forth between Hoover’s early days at the FBI and the final years of his life, at which point various typists transcribe an autobiography he’s dictating. He recounts the major cases he personally oversaw, including the Palmer Raids, the kidnapping and death of Charles Lindbergh’s baby boy, and the gangster wars of the early 1930s. To say he “personally oversaw” is not to suggest he acted alone or was even physically present. That didn’t stop him from taking most of the credit. When Melvin Purvis, one of the most effective and respected agents of his time, became a media sensation after successfully tracking down criminals such as Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger, Hoover’s response was to demote him. He would, in fact, frequently fire or reassign agents he considered objectionable.

I suspect most audiences will go into this movie with preconceived notions about Hoover’s personal life, most notably that he may have been a transvestite and a closeted homosexual. Both are unsubstantiated rumors, although there is strong evidence supporting the latter, not the least of which is his lifelong friendship with FBI associate director Clyde Tolson. Apart from their professional relationship, they would often dine together, attend social events, and go vacationing. Tolson would go on to inherit Hoover’s estate, receive the American flag draped over his coffin, and ultimately be buried in the same cemetery only a few yards away. It cannot be denied that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black are making a case for this aspect of Hoover’s life. But this is not a message film about forbidden love; it’s a portrait of a man who defined himself solely by his reputation.
True enough, it was built and maintained in large part by gathering secret files on the alleged sex lives of prominent public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt. It’s widely speculated that he did this only for the purposes of blackmail, which would explain how he was able to stay in power for nearly fifty years (and why FBI directors have since been limited to ten-year terms). Publically, he was so militantly anti-gay that he went as far as to track down and threaten anyone who questioned his sexuality. There’s no telling how he felt privately, although the film makes some compelling arguments. Consider a scene in which he’s alone in a hotel room with Tolson (Armie Hammer) and broaches the subject of proposing to actress Dorothy Lamour (who in real life was reported to have had an affair with Hoover). How does this fit with the image of a lifelong bachelor who surrounded himself with good-looking people, had an eye for fashion, and lived with his mother until the day she died?

His mother, Annie (Judi Dench), matronly and domineering, says that she would rather her son be dead than a “daffodil,” like one of Hoover’s old schoolmates. We inevitably have this scene in mind after her death, at which point Hoover tearfully tries on one of her dresses. By my understanding of this scene, he was not trying to emulate the opposite sex; rather, it was an emotional last-ditch effort to recapture his closeness with his mother. This isn’t creepy so much as it is sad and desperate. In that moment, we pity him.
The other woman in his life was Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who, after a few unconventional dates and an awkward marriage proposal, would go on to become his permanent personal secretary. He entrusted her with his secret files, the contents of which remain largely unknown. No real effort is made to speculate on all the information he gathered, which is fine because this isn’t really what J. Edgar is about. It’s a well-researched period drama, complete with accurate costumes, convincing sets, and appropriately nostalgic lighting and color schemes. Above all else, it’s a superbly acted character study about a man once considered the second most powerful in America – although he could have easily been the first, considering the control he had over elected officials.


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December 01, 2011
If Hoover and Tolson weren't intimately involved for over forty years, I'm not a dedicated switch-hitter. Standing with one's back turned fifteen meters away from an airplane as it alights hardly brings the notion of its landing into doubt merely because one hasn't seen it.

Hoover's absurd ejection of Purvis from the bureau was one of his worst mistakes; that this insecure act and the deployment of COINTELPRO were only mentioned herein does this picture no favors...
December 31, 2011
I think the film was intended to be more of a character study than a rundown of his career. That may be why I responded to it; I enjoy it when filmmakers delve into a character's mind and not just focus on the actions.
January 08, 2012
You're right, and while I admire the quality of this enactment, Eastwood was undoubtedly more interested in providing audiences with what they were likely to enjoy than what they deserve. Hoover's career was monumental, incalculably influential to the overreach and lawlessness of federal authority that's now more commonplace than ever. By contrast, his private affairs were colorful but relatively uneventful. I agree that characterization is of paramount importance in any cinematic biopic, and that his persona was afforded a plausible portrayal in this picture, but that details concerning personage were presented more prominently than those of policy only confirms that American preoccupations with trivia almost invariably trump any interest in matters of political pertinence.
November 16, 2011
Just saw the movie today and I agree with you about the scene where he puts on his mothers dress and necklace. It has nothing to do with the rumors of his cross dressing to me. Its a very emotional moment about a man so dependant on his mothers approval, that in the end he just wants to remain as close to her as possible. It was a very moving moment. My friend who went to see it with me felt it was all about the cross dressing rumors.
November 15, 2011
Very well said.
November 19, 2011
Thank you.
November 13, 2011
I think you're being too hard on yourself, Chris. First of all, you do say they expertly bring all periods to the film, and yoy don't want to give too much away. Besides, you make it quite clear wgat the merits are here. Nice job.
November 14, 2011
I have been getting a lot of positive feedback on this review, so I guess I should just shut up and not question it.
November 13, 2011
This is a film I'd like to go out and see. Thanks for your fluid and insightful review, Chris.
November 13, 2011
I'm glad you like my review, especially since I don't think it's very good. I don't describe enough about the real J. Edgar Hoover, I didn't adequately discuss the film's look, and I didn't make it clear that the film really isn't a gay movie (a term I'm becoming increasingly frustrated with). In any case, you should go and see it.
November 10, 2011
I am going to see this over the weekend. It sounds very good and the trailer was excellent.
November 13, 2011
It is a very good film, in my opinion. I hope you enjoy it.
November 13, 2011
Well I didn't get there over the weekend. Got busy with real life stuff. Will be going on Tuesday morning.
November 10, 2011
I'm glad to hear that DiCaprio was great in this; I've always liked him as an actor but feel he doesn't get enough credit for his works. This film sounds intriguing and I'd like to see it. Thanks for the great review!
November 13, 2011
Thanks for the comment. You're right; DiCaprio is a bit undervalued as an actor. Here's hoping this film gives him more recognition.
November 10, 2011
Ok. Sold! I will see this in the next two days (three day weekend for me). Eastwood in the director's chair usually brings me to the theaters anyhoo. Thanks!
November 13, 2011
That's great. I hope you enjoy it.
More J. Edgar (2011 film) reviews
review by . November 23, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Possible Spoilers Alert. I really enjoyed this film. I found it quite fascinating that the FBI had such a hard battle to get initiated into American government and that each new President wanted to fire Hoover and disband the FBI.      Without Hoover, we wouldn't have FBI, kidnapping wouldn't be a federal crime (brought on by the Lindberg kidnapping), the agents wouldn't be armed or have any right to arrest criminals, and we wouldn't have a fingerprint database …
review by . November 16, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Oscar worthy performance for Leonardo - but no awards for makeup - J. Edgar
I rated J. Edgar a four based on Leonardo's DiCaprio's performance.   Clink Eastwood slow placing seems completely appropriate to me in this film, although I have read many reviews complaining about the pacing.  At two and a half hours the movie is long, but I was kept spellbound by Leonardo's tranformation into J. Edgar Hoover.   In my opinion he is a shoe in for a best actor nomination this year.   I thought Judi Dench was excellent as always playing J. Edgar's …
review by . November 02, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
J. Edgar: The Assemblage of Hollywood's Finest
             There is no question that J. Edgar is a remarkable man. He is the father of the Federal Bureau of Investigations and revolutionized the logistics of crime scene forensics; nevertheless, like any other man, he is not one of immaculate morality. There were accusations of corruption and disapproval over his use of espionage in his lengthy 48 years as the FBI’s director that began in 1924 and ended in 1972.  Behind the scenes, he had an egotistical …
review by . September 28, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Throughout an illustrious directing career Clint Eastwood has delivered outstanding movies such as Unforgiven, Mystic River, and Million Dollar Baby, for which he has won five Academy Awards, for best Picture, Best Director, and including the Irving Thalberg Life Achievement Award. My personal favorite of all his directed movies is Gran Torino.    The actors who have worked with him have been blessed with Oscar: Gene Hackman for Unforgiven, Tim Robbins and Sean Penn for Mystic …
review by . November 09, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
One of my longstanding fascinations with history is the way we deify or vilify historical figures. Yes, we all know that George Washington and Thomas Jefferson preached big words about freedom while holding slaves, but those are just two examples, and neither one tells the full story: There are documents which indicate that Wash and TJ were aware of their hypocrisy, but thought slavery would fade away naturally in time. Martin Luther King was known for his dream, and for principled non-violent resistance. …
review by . June 19, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
DiCaprio seems to amaze me with his string of exceptional performances (Blood Diamond, Catch Me If You Can, The Aviator, Inception, Shutter Island) and he once again delivers as the founder of the FBI who kept a file on everyone and was the most feared man in America. Told as a sort of memoir, Hoover is nearing the end of his life and calls in an agent to write down his story.    Starting with witnessing the near assasination of a Senator. He finds a leaflet supporting the US …
review by . November 08, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
'J. Edgar' 'Two Jews On Film' Duke It Out Over Clint Eastwood's Latest Bio Pic (Video)
      By Joan Alperin-Schwartz      Every once in awhile, you experience a performance by an actor that simply blows your mind...And that's exactly what happened to me, when I watched Leonardo DiCaprio portray J. Edgar Hoover  in Clint Eastwood's new film, 'J. Edgar'      .What makes a great performance are the subtle things an actor does...things that inform the character...a gesture, a …
review by . November 30, 2011
posted in Movie Hype
Eastwood's filmic account of Hoover the Voracious, the Fastidious, the Venal - self-aggrandizing, mother's son, political paranoiac, closet queer, social inept, vindictive bureaucrat - exudes twentieth century Americana ethos, highlighting the contentious FBI director's harried exploits and tortured, marginalized private life.      Alternating betwixt Hoover's ascension and heyday in the nineteen twenties and thirties and his twilight years in the sixties through …
review by . September 16, 2012
posted in Movie Hype
Should have been better
This speculative biopic of the controversial FBI director stars Leonardo DiCaprio. The story opens in 1970, as Hoover is dictating his history of the Bureau; in flashbacks, we see his pivotal role the Lindburgh case and his battles with Communists, the Roosevelts, Kennedys, and Martin Luther King, Jr. He was also obsessed with his doting mother (Judi Dench) and his long-time Assistant Director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).      The story is, in turns, exciting and boring, heartfelt …
About the reviewer
Chris Pandolfi ()
Ranked #5
Growing up a shy kid in a quiet suburb of Los Angeles, Chris Pandolfi knows all about the imagination. Pretend games were always the most fun for him, especially on the school playground; he and his … more
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About this movie


J. Edgar is an upcoming biographical drama film directed by Clint Eastwood,[1] from a script by Dustin Lance Black. The film will focus on the career of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover from the Palmer Raids onwards, including an examination of his private life as an alleged closeted homosexual.[2]
The film stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Damon Herriman, Ed Westwick and Jeffrey Donovan. J. Edgar is slated to open the AFI Fest 2011 in Los Angeles on November 3, 2011, and to be released on November 9, 2011, in the United States by Warner Bros. Pictures.
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Drama, History, Clint Eastwood, Leonardo Dicaprio, Gangsters, Naomi Watts, Bio Pics, J Edgar Hoover, J Edgar Movie Review, Armie Hammer


Director: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Crime, Drama
Release Date: 2011.11.11
MPAA Rating: R
Screen Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Runtime: 137 minutes
Studio: Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, Wintergreen Productions
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