[Screen It]

"J. EDGAR"
(2011) (Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer) (R)

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QUICK TAKE:
Drama: As he deals with current issues of his day, the director of the FBI dictates the history of his nearly half-century term with the agency.
PLOT:
As the long-standing director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (LEONARDO DICAPRIO) wants the world to know of his nearly half-century term with the agency and thus is dictating his memoirs to a number of agency journalists. While doing so, we flashbacks to his early years with what was then known as the Bureau of Investigation while he still lived with his controlling mother, Annie (JUDI DENCH).

Appointed director of that agency in 1924, he then assigns new secretary Helen Gandy (NAOMI WATTS) to be his personal assistant, and then hires the dashing Clyde Tolson (ARMIE HAMMER) into his circle, eventually appointing him as his second-in-command.

From the rise of folk hero bank robbers to the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg's baby, rumors about Eleanor Roosevelt's sexuality up through the threat of communism, the Kennedy brothers, Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Nixon, Hoover ends up having a hand in reshaping crime fighting as well as the scientific gathering of information on others.

But he also begins a track record of abusing the latter for his own gains and power plays, something that doesn't sit well with Clyde, his long-time confidant, travel companion and possible lover over their many years together, both personally and working for the agency.

OUR TAKE: 5 out of 10
A bit more than a year ago, Google CEO Eric Schmidt stated that at that time more information was created every two days than occurred from the beginning of civilization up through 2003. Who knows where that figure now stands or where it will be in the very near future, but there's no denying that information has become king, far outweighing physical products that once dominated all aspects of life.

In the new biopic "J. Edgar," the long-standing titular director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation states that "information is power." While Mr. Hoover died long before the advent of the Internet, personal computers, smart phones and other such devices, he was at the forefront of using intelligent data and technology to further his means of turning the FBI into a government powerhouse, catch any number of bad guys, and exert personal control over those he feared or simply disliked.

Considering his career spanned forty-eight years (starting as director of the Bureau of Investigation in 1924 until his death in 1972) under eight presidential administrations and the fact that little is really known about the man (beyond unsubstantiated hearsay), director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black clearly had their work cut out for them in terms of delivering a film about the man.

Using the framing device of Hoover dictating his questionably honest or accurate memoirs to a number of young G-men journalists, the filmmakers jump around through time and the protagonist's life, touching on any number of highlights and arguable low points during his record-setting career at the bureau (after his death, directors haven't been allowed to serve for more than a 10-year term).

It's all intriguing stuff on the surface and could be interesting to casual history fans. For those looking for something in-depth, however, much of what's present will most likely be disappointing to one degree or another.

And that's true on two levels. The first involves the various historical events and accounts depicted in the film. From the Bolshevik communist bombings in 1919 to the rise in popularity of notorious bank robbers (such as John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, etc. -- although none are directly depicted onscreen), the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg's baby, Eleanor Roosevelt, John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King, Richard Nixon and more, the film is rife with notable historical figures and incidents.

But since there are so many and they all had some degree of impact on or were affected by Hoover, Eastwood and company can't afford to spend much time on any of them (although the Lindberg kidnapping gets the lion's share). As a result, much of what's present feels like a highlight reel rather than any sort of eye-opening examination of them and/or Hoover's involvement with said events.

The second and somewhat more successful level involves an examination of the man's personal life. While some of what's present is based on known fact, other bits touch on longstanding rumors, allegations and such about the man and the legend he created. For the average viewer of a certain age, there's the well-known gossip of Hoover being a closet cross-dresser and/or homosexual lover to his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson. Others know of him being an increasingly paranoid abuser of power who kept secret, blackmail-ready files on the famous and infamous.

Since little factual evidence exists for any of that, it's anyone's guess what was fact and what was fiction. Eastwood touches on all of that without going overboard in any direction, and on that personal level he gets a lot of mileage out of Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover and Armie Hammer as his close lieutenant, confidant and long-time companion. Both bring believable nuances to their respective characters, and the sometimes strained, sometimes touching chemistry between the two gives the film some heart.

Playing essentially the only two women in Hoover's life, Judi Dench (as his controlling mother with whom he lived until her death) and Naomi Watts (as his one-time desired date turned life-long and loyal personal secretary) are okay in their roles, but don't get enough time to create deep characters.

But it's that jumping around through time that ultimately robs the film of any great impact. At one moment, the gifted DiCaprio is in old-man makeup and "fat suit" depicting the director in his later years and you forget you're watching the star of films such as "Inception," "Catch Me if You Can" and "Titanic." And then we're suddenly sent back sometime into the past where he looks like, well, Leo.

I've never been a big fan of the present to past framing device (although it can work in films such as "Forrest Gump"), and its use here derails the pic of any sort of building dramatic momentum. And with the various historical figures and events just getting scant attention, the overall pic feels somewhat like a disjointed highlight reel.

Considering all of the historical significance that's at play here, not to mention the parallels between Hoover's "intel is power" mindset and that of today's governments -- both in regard to dealing with domestic and international terrorism and the abuse of such power -- this could have been a deeply engrossing, captivating and maybe even entertaining offering. As it stands, "J. Edgar" is ultimately hurt by not knowing what information and storytelling needed the most focus. It rates as a 5 out of 10.




Reviewed November 3, 2011 / Posted November 9, 2011


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