By Mike Smith
For the past two decades, Hollywood has been on the Clint Eastwood bandwagon. After he won an Oscar for directing “Unforgiven,” (the film also won Best Picture), Eastwood was finally accepted as a filmmaker of the highest order. Never mind that Warner Brothers dumped “Unforgiven” in theatres in the first week of August. To the studio it was just another one of “Clint’s projects”…in exchange for Eastwood doing an action film or a variation on Dirty Harry, the studio would finance a more personal film. Films like “Honkytonk Man,” “Bronco Billy” and “White Hunter, Black Heart” emerged from that deal. Well made films that showed a side of Eastwood that surprised many. Since “Unforgiven,” Eastwood has directed some of the best films of the past 20 years, among them “Mystic River,” “Million Dollar Baby” (Oscars for directing and picture), “Flags of our Fathers” and “Gran Torino.” Now, as he approaches his 82nd birthday, Eastwood gives us “J. Edgar.”
The time is the 1960s. FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) has decided to recount his story and that of the bureau. It begins in 1919, where we find J. Edgar still living at home with his mother and sister and traveling via bicycle. He is gung ho about his career in the justice department. So much so, that his idea of a date includes taking his girl to the crime library to show off the card-catalog system he designed. In 1924 the 29-year old Hoover is named acting director of the Bureau of Investigation (renamed in 1935 as the Federal Bureau of Investigation). At the time of his appointment, Hoover’s agents had no police powers. They could not arrest, nor were they issued firearms. When a group of agents gathers for a raid, Hoover produces a suitcase full of pistols, telling the men they are a gift from him. After the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s (Josh Lucas) son, the bureau gets noticed because of the various ideas (finger printing, studying varying woods) Hoover promotes that helps solve the case (another story altogether). As the years progress, Hoover orders his personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the former library date, to begin storing his “confidential” files. These contain the dirt he has dug up on various politicians and businessmen. “Information is power,” he tells her. He also interviews and hires a young man named Clyde Tolson (Hammer). Hoover is piqued by the note in Tolson’s background report that states he’s never seen in the company of women. Hmmmmm.
Directed with a steady hand, “J. Edgar” is a film with much more flash then substance. A straight-forward biography, the film moves along evenly. But with no emotional high or low point, there is nothing that makes you sit up and take notice. The fault lies in the script by “Milk” Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black. The story is compelling, but with little color to draw you into it. The cast, however, is first rate. DiCaprio, his blue-green eyes hidden behind brown contacts, immerses himself in the role of Hoover, giving one of the best performances of his career. Hammer, so good as the Winklevoss twins in “Social Network,” gives Tolson a quietness that lets the audience into his thoughts. Dench is strong as Ma Hoover. She’s all too aware of Edgar’s peccadilloes, and none too happy. “I’d rather have a son be dead instead of a daffodil,” she tells Edgar one night, using the slang of the period. But daffodil or not, the film belongs to DiCaprio, who even in makeup commands the screen.