Details: (M), 137 mins, In Cinemas 26 January 2012, United States, English
Synopsis: As the face of law enforcement in America for almost 50 years, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was feared and admired, reviled and revered. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. During his lifetime, Hoover would rise to be the most powerful man in America. As head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, he would stop at nothing to protect his country. Through eight presidents and three wars, Hoover waged battle against threats both real and perceived, often bending the rules to keep his countrymen safe. His methods were at once ruthless and heroic, with the admiration of the world his most coveted, if ever elusive, prize.
Clint Eastwood misses the target, again, with laboured, sombre drama.
At the age of 81, Clint Eastwood is experiencing a rare but prolonged decline in his illustrious career.
Since the wonderful Gran Torino in 2008, the prolific filmmaker has directed three films which have performed well below his usual standards in the US. And two have been poorly received by critics who often admire the director’s works.
His anti-apartheid drama Invictus earned just $37.5 million at US cinemas and a more respectable $84 million in the rest of the world, despite a healthy 75 per cent “fresh” rating on Rotten Tomatoes, which aggregates reviews.
Supernatural mystery Hereafter made a measly $33 million in the US and $72 million elsewhere, scoring a mediocre 46 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
Now comes J. Edgar, which collected $37 million at home and registered 43 per cent on Rotten Tomatoes.
If US audiences were unenthused by or uninterested in Eastwood’s biopic of FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, will Aussies give a toss?
Probably not, despite the shrewd casting of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role. Leo’s an inherently likable and sympathetic actor and he succeeds, to a point, in humanising a man who by all accounts was a self-righteous, hypocritical, egomaniac who ruthlessly pursued power and systematically abused that power.
Most people aged under 40 probably have never heard of Hoover; to others he may be a notorious although remote figure in the history of US criminal justice.
Eastwood’s chief mistake was to place too much trust in the script by Dustin Lance Black, whose far superior, more compelling and coherent screenplay for Milk was rewarded with an Oscar.
As a result, J. Edgar is overly long, laboured and intermittently boring at 136 minutes; for some viewers it will likely be a test of endurance in watching a tortured, secretive, repressed and unscrupulous man over the course of his 48 years in law enforcement.
There are few dramatic flashpoints as Black and Eastwood cram in a multitude of characters and events and the non-linear narrative confusingly leaps back and forth between different eras.
As a framing device, the aging Hoover dictates his self-serving, often exaggerated and mendacious version of history to a succession of young male agents. Thus we learn of his rapid rise through the ranks of the newly formed Bureau of Investigation, starting in 1919 when he was 24; his preoccupation with rooting out communists, anarchists and other alleged radicals; the pioneering move of creating a centralised register of fingerprints; and amassing his own personal “dirt” file on perceived adversaries including US Presidents Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy and civil rights leader Martin Luther King.
The kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s infant son and the massive manhunt for the perpetrator are chronicled in tedious detail yet the Kennedy assassination is dispensed with in a couple of minutes and a confrontation with Attorney-General Robert Kennedy seems improbable.
Naomi Watts plays Helen Gandy, an attractive typist whom he asks out on a date – to the Library of Congress. After she rebuffs his clumsy overture he invites her to become his personal secretary, a task she loyally performs until his death.
Judi Dench makes the most of her limited screen time as his controlling smother mother Annie. In one of the film’s few moving scenes, she lectures her son on the dangers of being seen as a “daffodil” (i.e. gay), to which he replies glumly, “Yes, mother.” J. Edgar’s father, glimpsed briefly, is portrayed as gaga, which is based on fact: he had a mental breakdown and spent his last eight years in an asylum.
Armie Hammer, so impressive as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, shines as the young Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s long-serving second-in-charge, soulmate, dining companion and, perhaps platonically, perhaps sexually, lover (the film is ambiguous on that point). Hammer gives the character a sly, sardonic edge, coming across as a sensitive man who tried, often unsuccessfully, to act as his boss’ conscience.
In a rare outburst of emotion, Hoover has a physical tussle with Tolson when the latter flies into a jealous rage after J. Edgar confesses he’d been dating actress Dorothy Lamour.
Aussie Damon Herriman has a brief but effective cameo as Bruno Hauptmann, the Lindbergh baby kidnapper.
The hair and make-up effects enhance Di Caprio’s portrayal of the aging tyrant but Watts increasingly resembles an escapee from a horror movie and, as the elder Tolson, Hammer looks cadaverous or a burns victim and his performance suffers correspondingly.
Cinematographer Tom Stern, a frequent collaborator with Eastwood, mostly shoots in low, colour-desaturated light, which serves only to make the murky plot seem even murkier.
Watch Films Online
Films on SBS TV
SBS Film Guide to...
This December, we're celebrating Oz film by screening four classic titles.
Our monthly snapshot of upcoming movies at the cinema.
Marc Fennell dabbles in the dark side, with a season devoted to Very Bad Deeds.