DVD Release Date: February 21, 2012
Theatrical Release Date: November 9, 2011 (limited); November 11, 2011 (wide)
Rating: R (for brief strong language)
Genre: Biopic/Drama
Run Time: 137 min.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Hamilton, Geoff Pierson, Brady Matthews, Gunner Wright, David A. Cooper, Josh Lucas

While probably a little too ambitious for a single film (a television mini-series would’ve been a better fit), Clint Eastwood’s latest take on history, J. Edgar, still covers plenty of fascinating terrain.

In addition to providing an intriguing portrait of its powerful and thoroughly complex namesake, the film is also a snapshot of the FBI’s rise to power since it was Hoover himself who led the organization for the better part of 50 years. And if that wasn’t already enough to tackle in less than two-and-a-half hours, well, J. Edgar also serves as the Cliff’s Notes for nearly half a century of American history and politics to boot.

Even in Eastwood’s mostly capable hands, it’s impossible to serve so many masters effectively, and his divided loyalties are probably why the film feels so uneven at times. Despite the screenplay’s tendency to gloss over details that warranted further explanation, J. Edgar is still an engaging depiction of a prickly, powerful man filled with all sorts of prejudice and contradiction.  

Like many prominent historical figures, J. Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio, Inception) life is practically tailor-made for a biopic. A fiercely private man who leveraged everyone else’s dirty little secrets in the name of justice, especially those of high-ranking government officials, he’s really irony personified. And his purported double life is an intriguing yarn that’s woven throughout.

As hideous as his behavior is most of the time, he’s portrayed as a decidedly sympathetic monster, though. Rather than tell the story in stark black and white, Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) rely on various shades of gray. Not only do we see just how painfully shy and awkward he is on a date with a young woman (an underused Naomi Watts, Fair Game) he’s been charged to romance by his overbearing mother (Judi Dench, Jane Eyre), but when she senses that her son might not exactly play for that team anyway, she regularly exploits his deepest fears of being found out by telling him a story about how a “daffodil” committed suicide after his own secret came to light.

Much has been made of Hoover’s rumored homosexual tendencies, and there are subtle clues present throughout, whether it’s his preference for having handsome young men like Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) as co-workers or the scene where he slips on his mother’s dress and pearls while grieving her death. Funny enough, while struggling with something yourself often makes people more sympathetic to other’s weaknesses, that’s definitely not the case with Edgar. If anything, he seems to delight in the shortcomings of others, particularly people in the spotlight like civil rights leader Martin Luther King, who he’s intent on exposing when he obtains a tape recording of him sleeping with someone who isn’t his wife.

The frailty of humanity, not to mention the idea of what our legacies will be once we’re gone, are rich themes that inevitably make J. Edgar a compelling film. Superbly acted, particularly by DiCaprio who virtually disappears into his role (or he does, anyway, until he’s sporting that overly caked-on aging makeup that doesn’t do him any favors), it’s perfect Oscar bait in what’s been a so-so year at the box office. But more than anything else, it’s a reminder of how shallow life can be when you’re the only driving force, and that’s something that comes to light again and again in J. Edgar.

CAUTIONS:

  • Drugs/Alcohol: Social drinking and cigarette smoking. Edgar also receives injections that are supposed to help his increasingly weakened condition as he gets older.
  • Language/Profanity: A single “f” word, two uses of coc-suc-ers, plus an instance where God’s name is taken in vain.
  • Sex/Nudity: After getting into a disagreement over Edgar’s desire to find a wife, he and Clyde get into a fight and end up kissing. Clyde tells Edgar he loves him; Edgar later confesses how much Clyde means to him, too. Discussion of politicians’ extra-marital affairs and a possible homosexual dalliance from a president’s wife. Edgar listens to a tape of Martin Luther King having extra-marital sex (moaning and heavy breathing is heard). Edgar’s mother calls homosexual men “daffodils.”
  • Violence: Several bombs detonate and innocent people are killed in the process. Several scenes involving gunfire. The shriveled corpse of a dead baby is shown. A story is told about a man killing himself when people discovered he was gay.
     

Christa Banister is a full-time freelancer writer, specializing in music, movies and books-related reviews and interviews and is the author of two novels, Around the World in 80 Dates and Blessed Are the Meddlers. Based in Dallas, Texas, she also weighs in on various aspects of pop culture on her personal blog

For more information, including her upcoming book signings and sample chapters of her novels, check out her Website.