Ooh, Have I Got A Dirty Little Secret On You
"You either die a hero or you live long enough to see yourself become the villain." - Harvey Dent, The Dark Knight (2008)
A quick look at the director and leading star's filmography will point to the fact that both have acclaimed biographies under their belts, with Clint Eastwood having tackled Nelson Mandela in Invictus, and Leonardo DiCaprio becoming Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese's The Aviator. Both men now combine to bring to the big screen an adaptation of the story behind the creation and the early days of the Federal Bureau of Investigations, or the FBI as its better known acronym, under the leadership of its charismatic founder J. Edgar Hoover, who as a character has already been in countless of films set in post war America charged with the need to neutralize US domestic criminal threats at times where being a gangster was sexy, and being a revolutionary (on whichever side of the fence you see it from) harbouring the hopes of thousands for change.
You can just about trust Clint Eastwood to bring his economical style of direction to a biography as colourful as it is epic in the life of Hoover's life and times, intertwined so closely with the FBI's given his almost singular vision and objective to see his creation survive countless of politicking and handling of high profile crimes with hands tied around its back. For those interested in a particularly skewed version of history, the film does this quite handsomely, with high production values brought in to recreate eras long past, starting from the pre-WWI days, right up to the Nixon administration where Hoover finally comes face to face with a president able to play his kind of mind and intimidation games, and to probably turn the tables around.
Amateur history buffs will find joy in discovering the many historical milestones that Eastwood had peppered in the film, thanks to Dustin Lance Black's story that captures key events that J Edgar Hoover and his agency had inevitably had a role to play in, as we follow how they struggle from their relatively humble origins to become one of the best funded in country, sowing the seeds as one of the few professionally run, reputed investigation agencies in the world. And at times you'd just wonder if Hoover was actually the right man for the job, willing to bend the rules, and seek out advantages that may not always be legal or morally right, such as the much suspected and speculative theory of him compiling naughty dossiers on prominent people so as to bring about personal advantages and one upmanship against any leader who has the potential of disagreeing with his views.
Then there's also the ensemble of historical characters making their way to this film, such as the Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) whose kidnapped son became the catalyst Hoover needed to consolidate and expand his range of powers, Jeffrey Donovan as Robert Kennedy, the presidents of Dwight Eisenhower (Gunner Wright), Franklin Roosevelt (David A. Cooper), and Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon right down to the swear word he uses, child star Shirley Temple (Emily Alyn Lind) and Judi Dench playing Anna Marie Hoover, the motherly figure who occupies such a prominent role and influence in her son's life. In some ways the costuming and make up departments of the film were unjustifiably robbed of at least some OScar nominations from this year's awards season, since they did an incredible job in making everyone look their very best like the characters, and coming up with a range of looks for the key figures in the film as we follow them through the most parts of their lives.
And as if the engaging story that's focused on the more operational functions of the FBI and J Edgar's influence in leading the Bureau to operate the way he wants it to be run, coupled with getting credited for bringing cutting edge forensic science and technology of the time to the Bureau, some which are taken for granted in investigations of today, Eastwood balances the film with insights into Hoover's personal life and even sexual orientation which had always been the subject of speculation. A fair bit gets put into examining Hoover's relationships with his close inner circle of trusted associates, such as Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) his confidential secretary and Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer) who eventually became his closest ally in the Bureau's fight against crime and his rumoured lover, that it pokes some serious holes into the gung ho persona of a crimebuster, and showed the more vulnerable side of the man.
These will include the innuendos spouted when in the privacy of his companion Tolson, as well as the much talked about necessity (or otherwise) in having to show J Edgar in drag, which I felt had tested the spectrum of Leonardo DiCaprio's acting skills and his recent snub at being nominated for Best Actor at the Oscars is keenly felt. And credit has to go to the star for taking up challenging roles in his choice of films to date, here having to portray a man who has dedicated his life to the building of an agency, to (at least to him) the fervant domestic defense of his country against external threats in whatever form they may ta1ke, and yet having to repress his innermost feelings and desires because it's the right thing to do, and not go against his much adored mom, nor want to stain the reputation of his office at a time where skeletons were still best kept in the closet.
But while credit has to go to DiCaprio, I felt that Arnie Hammer also did an equivalent of a job as Tolson, having to be the counterfoil to the more volatile J Edgar, and also being a witness to a series of historical events that will come back to haunt the growingly inconsistent FBI head honcho. It will be interesting to track this star's progress from The Social Network where he played twins, to next year's The Lone Ranger as he takes on the titular character. Naomi Watts had an important character role to play, but was ultimately shelved from anything more interesting once her character ditched the early opportunity to be married, only to be so to her job, and the painstaking moments both she and Edgar share even when she disagrees with the methods her boss employs.
Clint Eastwood may be getting along in years, yet possesses so much energy to helm films, to direct and produce, as well as to come up with the score for his movies' soundtracks, that it's really quite remarkable that he would be able to sustain working with a group out there to make the best possible out of their little film. You may have seen Hoover in or mentioned in many films from time to time, but I'd bet that nothing has yet so far given him far a film focused on his exploits that's bound to polarize audiences toward the film. It's not the movie's role to set the record straight or be definitive in its account, but herein lies the purpose in showing how people tend to skew accounts to their benefit of course.
Told in a timeline that jumps into flashbacks, J. Edgar has all the ingredients necessary for it to become a great bio-pic, and told in the way only Clint Eastwood knows how, to engage, entertain and provoke some thought into the legacy of a man who had founded an institution. Highly recommended!