When it comes to an American figure so renowned as J. Edgar Hoover, there are a hundred different movies that could be made to attempt to sum up the man’s life. On the DVD/Blu-ray “J. Edgar,” Clint Eastwood has chosen a more indirect path, one that looks over the shoulder of the director of the FBI and observes the cloudy history of Hoover’s personal life. It’s a methodical, dark and damp styling of a film that speaks as openly to the man’s greatest accomplishments as well as his deepest inner demons.
This vision of Hoover is uniquely screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s, interpreted through the keen eye of director Clint Eastwood. The thread that flows constantly through the film is Hoover’s desire for glory — his belief that success is never unattainable, and that credit for those successes belongs to him, the sole victor. The task to capture J. Edgar’s worldview is placed squarely on the shoulders of Leonardo DiCaprio, and the results are spectacular.
DiCaprio has two very different and yet the same tasks to accomplish in realizing the character of Hoover. Eastwood has chosen to give us the story through the eyes of the senior J. Edgar looking back through the eyes of a younger version of himself. To play the character in two drastically different ages of life, DiCaprio dons heavy makeup for the aged Hoover, somehow retaining a high level of realism. As the film begins, a tired, worn down Hoover states, “It’s time this generation learn my side of the story.” It’s a story that takes us from a young Hoover fighting communism and chasing modern day outlaws, to an older J. Edgar being loathed by the likes of JFK and Nixon.
In highlighting such a well-known historical figure, one expects a film that exaggerates and creates a larger-than-life interpretation of the events that comprised J. Edgar’s existence. But the movie is much more concerned with the constant loneliness and cold shoulder Hoover gave time and time again to meaningful relationship. The only people that he kept close enough were his mother (Judi Dench), his lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The four make up one of the most compelling ensembles in movies from 2011, though widely overlooked for the emotional pull that each one of them lends to film.
As DiCaprio murmurs a reflective monologue throughout the film, there are many tidbits of knowledge to be gleaned. At one point he exclaims, “What determines a man’s legacy is what oft isn’t seen.” This couldn’t be any truer for a man than J. Edgar, as the film attempts to delicately explore the most secretive parts of his life, specifically his sexual orientation. Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who never fully comes to terms with his grand trust and affection towards men, specifically his friend Tolson. There is a deep melancholy to this unresolved struggle many believe Hoover dealt with, but as with many areas of his life, most of it is pure speculation. This may be a part of his legacy, but the secrets that he went with him to his grave may be much more troubling in regards to American history than we could ever imagine.
The DVD/Blu-ray that releases this week from Warner Brothers is light on additional material. In addition to the film, the disk features an extended look at the man in, “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.” The short film explores the character with interviews from director Clint Eastwood, writer Dustin Lance Black, and members of the cast. The perspective is primarily historical, while each of them give their opinion on the man and his philosophies. The Blu-ray itself perfectly reflects the definitive style of Eastwood’s film, bringing clarity to the darkly processed shots, and the wonderfully moody cinematography.
With J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood has imagined a stark portrait of a man that was boisterous in his greatness and entirely silent in the things and people that motivated and inspired his personality. The movie for some may be hard to watch, as Hoover is not a man of much warmth or redeeming qualities. But the film version is a significant one, taking a long, hard look through the eyes of a brilliant human being. Just as it took a while for people to recognize Hoover’s mark on history, it may take some time for the film to find its place in people’s minds as a triumph in profiling an elusive character. It’s as J. Edgar Hoover says in the film, “Innovators aren’t often celebrated, at least not at first.”