Movie Review: J.Edgar

Posted on November 11, 2011


By Geoff Ratliff

If somebody said the following to you with no other details – “Clint Eastwood is directing a new movie starring Leonardo DiCaprio.” – what would your reaction be? Probably something like “When’s the release date?” If you are at all interested in history and that same person told you “It’s a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover” you’d be even more intrigued right? My point is that this movie debuted with high expectations, and I am happy to report that the film mostly delivers on that promise.

“J. Edgar” stars DiCaprio as both a young J.Edgar Hoover just starting out his career as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigations (FBI) and an older Hoover, towards the last few years of his life and 48-year run as the head of the bureau. The story would be interesting enough if it only focused on the political aspects of this film, from the charges of communism during the 1930’s, to the war on organized crime, the introduction of the finger printing system, the Kennedy assassination, and his disdain for Martin Luther King, Jr. and the civil rights movement. Instead, the film smartly spends as much, if not more time on Hoover’s personal struggles, from his lifelong battle with a speech impediment to the more controversial charges of closet homosexuality.

DiCaprio turns in his usual sterling performance, making us forget that it is him we are watching, but what really makes the movie standout is the supporting cast. Judy Dench has a subtle, but important role as Hoover’s mother Annie. There relationship says as much about J. Edgar as any of his other actions. Naomi Watts also delivers a quiet but substantial performance as Hoover’s career long personal assistant Helen Gandy. Watt’s performance excellently captures the strained loyalty that Gandy had to exhibit as she was forced to be intimately involved of the details of so many personal agendas and vendettas carried out by Hoover throughout his term at the FBI.

While the performances of DiCaprio, Dench, and Watts are to be expected from these well established stars, the true shining star of the movie is Armie Hammer – last seen playing the Winklevoss twins in 2010’s “The Social Network” – as Hoover long-time colleague and companion Clyde Tolson. Hammer stands out for his ability to convey a character who both supports Hoover professionally and socially, while not being submissive to his brash ways. While most people either submitted to Hoover’s domineering and compulsive ways, or easily dismissed him as a modern-day Napoleon, Tolson subtly challenged Hoover’s decisions, often to no avail, while maintaining his undying love and respect. The chemistry between DiCaprio and Hammer is truly magnetic, and Academy Award nominations should be in play for both.

The standout individual performances make up for the fact that the film is sometimes slow in it’s pace, and a little choppy in it’s transitions. That is not to say that the film is noticeably flawed, but personally, I’ve come to expect A+ efforts out of Eastwood every time. This was an above average effort, but not the unblemished gem I was hoping for.

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Posted in: Movie Reviews