Sunday, 22 January 2012

Movie #9 J. Edgar

Clint Eastwood's latest film is a chance to redeem himself of the mess that was last year's Hereafter, a Matt Damon vehicle that fair stank out the cinema. This time Leonardo Di Caprio is the star, playing J. Edgar Hoover, founder and long-serving director of the FBI (and all-round oddball), as we follow his controversial career from ambitious upperclassman in the twenties to his eventual death in 1972.

Essentially a love story dressed as a biopic, the crux of the film is the chaste, unspoken but passionate homosexual relationship between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, just one of him this time). At lot has been made of the homoeroticism in the film; Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who penned Milk) commendably step off the fence, going beyond the expected nudges and winks.

Good things, then: the cast, including Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas and Stephen Root (in a well-judged turn as a forensic wood expert) are generally fine. Di Caprio in particular is very convincing in the title role, though it's no surprise to us that he has developed the gravitas to carry a serious (and long) film. The script, while not perfect, is peppered with great dialogue and some fine dramatic flourishes. The film looks great too, with fabulous costume design and some lovely Gordon Willis oak-panel cinematography from Tom Stern.

On the downside, the film is is over-long and (in common with recent releases W.E. and The Iron Lady, though nowhere near as meretricious as those two) takes liberties with the past, drawing a veil over some of Hoover's nastier escapades. Judi Dench give s a very rare bum performance as Hoover's domineering mother, hindered by her lack of facility with an American accent. Also, the prosthetics (particularly Hammer's) for the older Hoover and Tolson are not 100% effective. Finally, it's kind of hard to put your finger on what the film was actually about. It doesn't seek to re-imagine Hoover, nor re-assess his legacy; perhaps it would have been a more successful film had they concentrated on a smaller time-frame, such as the investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby.

More esoterically, I wasn't sure what to expect of a film about Hoover. Not being American, my notions of Hoover are a little skewed (and, if I'm honest, have been drawn almost in entirety from the lively depiction in James Ellroy's American Tabloid). And while Eastwood is blunt about the romantic side of things, he steers clear of the less personal but more consequential conspiracy theories surrounding Hoover (ties with the Mafia, the assassination of Martin Luther King and so on). I ended up not knowing quite what to think about the man.

Still, a perfectly watchable film with a great central performance, if a bit unsatisfying in the end.


P.S. the film features by far the finest eggcups I have ever seen. They're like little elephants.