AFI Review: ‘J. Edgar’

"Overall the story is interesting and thought provoking, but it’s also slow and deliberate and takes time."

Fred Topelby Fred Topel

I don’t like important movies. I generally dread them but as a movie lover, I try to go in with an open mind, hoping it could be one of the good ones that elevates important subjects. J. Edgar is an interesting, well done document of history, so slightly above average but not much.

Leonardo DiCaprio really looks like J. Edgar Hoover, especially in old age makeup. I know obviously you couldn’t put him side by side with a historical photo, but it’s enough to suspend disbelief. I think DiCaprio is best when he’s playing historical figures like Howard Hughes or extreme characters like Arnie Grape. When he’s a fictional regular guy I still only see Leo, so J. Edgar is someone into whom he can disappear.

It’s interesting to see how someone can create something very productive and important, for all the wrong reasons and as a completely damaged human being. His idea for a database of fingerprints was really good. It’s good that we can analyze a crime scene today. He did it for totally Big Brother reasons so we certainly made some lemonade out of that lemon.

Hoover basically invented crime scene investigation. In the movie we see him investigate the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Perhaps in real chronology there were some small cases he tested it out on first, but the Lindbergh case is a perfectly reasonable dramatic demonstration of it. It’s good the someone was researching ways we can solve crimes with forensic evidence. Of course, the results of that investigation are sketchy, and you’d expect some R&D to go into a system like that, so maybe don’t execute anyone the first few times you convict them on a brand new system.

It seems like Hoover is socially awkward by choice. He’s not even trying to get along with people. His proposal to Helen Grady (Naomi Watts) is almost played as adorably misguided, like a Kate Hudson movie. It’s not. You do have to respect people and if that’s really how it went down, it suggests a disturbing personality disorder.

The movie makes no apologies about that though. Some of the tactics Hoover used to prop himself up, literally, make an interesting portrait of insecurity. He’s totally spiteful towards Melvin Purvis and just plain irrational about Martin Luther King. His reaction to the JFK assassination is better than Kevin Costner’s in JFK though.

There’s a total bromance between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It’s heartbreaking for poor Clyde, who ultimately wants more, and Hammer gets another standout role. You do feel the tragedy that Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench)’s homophobia kept him from coming out, and it wasn’t a time where there were positive gay role models for him. The cross dressing stems from his mother issues too.

I am really sick of looking at film that’s almost black and white/sepia, definitely not full color but not all the way black and white either. It’s ugly. With all those shadows, you know Clint Eastwood wanted black and white, but this halfway crap looks awful. Actual black and white footage of DiCaprio giving a newsreel speech looks glorious.

The age makeup looks great on DiCaprio. That’s clearly the one they tried the hardest on since we can compare him to a real person. It’s not so good on Hammer and it’s a bit of a mess on Watts too. Grady is a thankless role anyway. As Hoover’s lifelong secretary, she is the movie’s secretary too. All she does is announce who his appointments are so we can follow his important meetings.

Overall the story is interesting and thought provoking, but it’s also slow and deliberate and takes time. Nothing wrong with that but it depends on your mood. Better for a well rested afternoon than a stressful late night screening.