I had very low expectations for J. Edgar going into it. My experiences with Leo DiCaprio films have been shaky at best–he was good in The Aviator as Howard Hughes, seemed flat and almost emotionless in Gatsby, really good in Catch Me If You Can, and flat in Inception. But you also need to realize it was one of those movies that I’d sort of decided I wanted to see, but never went out of my way to put it on my list in Netflix or see it in the theatre. Instead, I noticed it was coming up on HBO, so I recorded it.
I was very impressed with his performance–easily one of the best of his career. And, as an aside, the makeup artist who aged him needs a huge award if they didn’t already win one.
There isn’t much to say about the plot here: it’s the story of J. Edgar Hoover’s meteoric rise to director of the FBI and how he worked to grow, solidify, and protect the bureau from all threats he perceived, whether they were real or not. It goes into his personal life and persona a great deal without ever going over the top with the rumors that have swirled around him. And it focuses particularly on his relationships with his mother and Clyde Tolson, his long-time companion and assistant director of the FBI.
The story is told as an autobiography, as Hoover calls in Agent Smith to basically take dictation from Hoover and write what Hoover insists is a history of the organization and beginnings of the FBI, so that a grateful nation could know the true story.
For the first part of the movie, it gets confusing, jumping back and forth into different eras of Hoover’s life to tell the stories that he deemed important, but once you got the hang of things and what the stories and times were, it became a lot easier to handle. Though, it dawned on me that I’d seen this same treatment, in almost the identical style once before: in Bird. A quick IMDB search told me what I didn’t realize: this film and the docudrama about jazz great Charlie Parker were directed by Clint Eastwood.
It’s a really done story and acting job to successfully illustrate how Hoover had always been insecure and dominated by his mother, and how he was really successful at appearing powerful while still being a bit unhinged deep down. He learned early on how appearance could make or break a career like his, and he continued living into that belief for his entire life.
By the end of the movie, you don’t really like Hoover, but you’re not completely angered by his actions, either. For a while, it’s obvious he did what needed to be done to start the FBI in a nation that was being overrun by gangs and other interstate crimes. But then his own paranoia takes over and he begins collecting information for his secret files–long rumored, but only proven through small collections of information, misfiled through the years.
If you’re the sort who goes for a really well done docudrama, doesn’t need action or tension or any other plot devices than seeing how a man’s life turns out, then definitely check out this movie. Four out of five stars.
See you tomorrow.