J. Edgar (2011) {spoiler alert}

I’ve thought about this movie for a long time but I cannot seem to make up my mind on it.

On the outset, I’m going to be firm about one thing – I liked it.

Not being an American, I have no idea what kind of public figure J Edgar Hoover is but I knew about the Hoover FBI connection given the fact that there are so many thrillers involving FBI (both books and movies). I suppose a film this personal and introspective about a sensitive public figure would require a whole different sort of analysis but I’m hardly qualified to comment on the movie from this stand.

However, in this regard, the movie doesn’t make it very clear just why Hoover is so powerful (tagline: “The Most Powerful Man on Earth”) except that he has an insane drive to succeed and an even more insane mother propelling him towards success and a lot of dirty material on various US Presidents. More elaboration on how Hoover becomes so powerful would have been welcome. As such, a lot of things seem incidental – Hoover was at the right place at the right time. Of course, he was quite driven and made quick and good use of many opportunities but the way Eastwood shows this, it seems like J Edgar Hoover thought of himself to be much more than he was. Of course, that is the way the movie is shown – J Edgar dictating a book about himself. It is pompous bordering on megalomania. The scandals and shortcomings are subtly shown. But was J Edgar’s position as the head of FBI never threatened? How come he remained the head honcho for so long? Are his secret files the only explanation? Given that J Edgar was a real person, the movie confuses me a lot about who he is. I’m prompted to look towards biographical documentaries to compare and understand this movie.

So I’m just going to treat it as a stand alone feature without the actual man it is based on. I don’t know anything about that man.

But I do know something about Leonardo DiCaprio and I have to say – he is brilliant in this one. The one thing that always bugs me about DiCaprio is the fact that his voice never changes. Since physically, he seemed so different and the makeup artists did such a great job with older Hoover, I wished there was some voice modification on his part. However, other than that, his acting was a treat.

Armie Hammer, though, was even more of a treat. I had not expected the gay story line and it was fresh and surprising and Armie was exciting to watch. His Clyde is wonderfully complementary to Leonardo’s Hoover. And he performs as well as Leonardo diCaprio as their characters age.

I was going to say that I wish Naomi Watts had more screen time given the fact that she does J Edgar the most important favour after his death and even in his life, she is one of the two people he relied on completely. But then again, there was a lot to the movie and not everyone could have had that kind of screen time. Armie Hammer required more than hers given his role.

I really loved how the whole movie is about how J Edgar seems himself but then when it comes to Clyde Tolson – well, Tolson shows him who he really is. Tolson loves J Edgar but he isn’t deluded about the man he has loved his whole life, not even when they are old men together.

There’s this one scene at the end where J Edgar is becoming paranoid and accusing Clyde of betraying him and tells him that he is not sure that he can trust him anymore. They are old men and Clyde has worked for J Edgar all his life but still, J Edgar is so harsh. But then he suddenly changes and says how Clyde is the only person he can trust anymore. It made me question the authenticity of J Edgar’s feelings for Clyde more than anything else. J Edgar is a person who loves no one more than himself in the end. All his actions are self-motivated. The two people he kept around him forever stayed with him out of their own sense of loyalty and purpose in their work. J Edgar did only what he needed to in order to keep them with him.

But then again, there is this scene where, after fighting over an actress J Edgar thinks he ought to marry, Clyde leaves and then J Edgar says after him, “I love you”. Is that sincere? Clyde isn’t there to listen to him. If J Edgar feels that way about Clyde, why won’t he treat him better afterwards? Or has oldage and loss of power made him bitter and more self-absorbed?

The character is complex. He is homosexual and racist. He is unscrupulous about getting his own personal ends but he is also the head of the FBI and instrumental to extending the power of FBI. J Edgar is as far from perfect as they get but he manages to bring in results. However, there is still something very distasteful about the conviction in Lindbergh kidnapping. There is something very distasteful about J Edgar. And getting that reaction out of the viewer is a big point in favour of the movie.

This dichotomy is what makes the movie interesting to me and like-able as well.


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