J. Edgar entered theaters this weekend, and my wife and I had the opportunity to see it last night. Unfortunately, the movie only put the exclamation point on a disappointing evening (it was raining, dinner at Macaroni Grill was an hour and fifteen minutes wait to get our meal after we ordered – well, you get the picture…). While we really looked forward to seeing this film, I’d have to rate the movie between 2 and 2.5 stars out of 5.
The movie was directed by Clint Eastwood, who won Academy Awards for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby, and J. Edgar Hoover was played quite well by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been toyed with by the Academy in receiving three nominations for acting, but is yet to receive his deserving award.
[Aside: DiCaprio is a fantastic actor, and I enjoy watching him on the screen. He's received Oscar nominations for Who's Eating Gilbert Grape?, The Aviator, and Blood Diamond. However, he starred in Titanic, which won the most Oscars ever, yet he didn't received a nomination?! He was great in Catch Me If You Can, Inception, Shutter Island, and particularly The Departed, but no Oscar nods. Letter to the Academy: Honor the man, pronto - don't make him wait 25+ years like you made Martin Scorsece wait... OK, stepping down from soapbox...]
Through Eastwood’s telling of the story, we find that there were three main people in Hoover’s life: his mother Annie Hoover, Clyde Tolson, his number two in the Bureau and his life companion, and Helen Gandy, Hoover’s personal secretary. These three people really did comprise the entirety of Hoover in who defined him, who nurtured him, and who protected him.
What’s clear from the picture is that J. Edgar Hoover had an incredibly logical mind (he even invented a card catalog system when he worked at the Library of Congress) and was a true innovator in the area of criminal and forensic science. His recognition of the use of fingerprint forensics to solve crimes was genius, and he certainly was constructive in fighting communism as a radical force in the United States, and in fighting organized crime elements in the big cities.
However, the part of Hoover for which he will be most remembered is his surveillance (in some cases, illegal) of public figures such as President John F. Kennedy and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and the secret “personal and confidential” files that he kept on people in order to coersce high-ranking U.S. officials to get his way.
Hoover had elements of genius, but some real shortcomings. Certainly the times in which he lived didn’t allow him to live his life as transparently as he might have liked. Yet, other flawed parts of his character showed through quite clearly regardless of the times.
Eastwood did as good of a job (I think) as he could with Hoover’s life (and the screenplay), and I personally think that DiCaprio did a great acting job in portraying Hoover as a human being, even though he ran the FBI with an iron fist during his 48-year tenure, intimidating Attorneys General and Presidents in the process. We do get the sense of the strong personal bonds Hoover had with his mother, Tolson, and Gandy, even though he didn’t always treat them well. The acting is very solid – Naomi Watts is very good as Helen Gandy, Dame Judi Dench plays Hoover’s mother amazingly well, and Armie Hammer is quite good as Hoover’s companion Clyde Tolson.
However, while I like nonlinear storylines with flashbacks to fill in the timeline, the timeline for this movie goes back and forth a bit too much for my taste – it actually made it hard to figure out where I was in the story. Plus, the story itself was somewhat slow at times, which made the overall length of the movie seem longer than it really was.
Overall, I enjoyed learning about Hoover and his life (both public and private), but I probably would have enjoyed a one-hour documentary instead of Eastwood’s two-and-a-half hour drama. If you want to see good actors, J. Edgar might be good (as a rental), but you want to know more about J. Edgar Hoover, there’s probably a good documentary out there.