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Cinema Signal: Not quite a green light but has elements of strong appeal for a limited audience.



"How presidents have used the FBI."

. "J. Edgar"

The man who early on in his career realized the power of having secret files on the biggest movers and shakers of his generation (and other perceived enemies) deserved better than this biopic treatment that is good only in spurts. For once, I'd lobby for the Oliver Stone approach ("JFK") which might have taken different liberties with the historical record but would undoubtedly have provided the drama and clarity that this version doesn't quite command.

Belonging more to the vein of "Flags of Our Fathers" in the Clint Eastwood directing archive (which was weighed down by his heavy touch with historical matters), it's very far from his splendid "Gran Torino," a hit that represents a whole other style of work. Eastwood gathered up a lot of facts about "the most feared man in the world" (because of the scandalous dope he had on the high and mighty in Washington and the Pentagon), but it comes across as a gathering up of highlights. For all the epic length, a superb cast, a revered helmsman and an estimated $35 mil, we had a right to hope for better.

If Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") had spent as much effort in creating a sympathetic connection with his subject character as he expended on perfecting the makeup, it might have worked out better for all involved.

Not that "J. Edgar" doesn't give us a sense of this important figure's career. He upgraded the FBI from a more or less harmless agency into the law enforcement agency it became under his watch and his introduction of new crime-fighting techniques, like fingerprinting. He was a lifelong bachelor and ran his agency as director under eight presidents. And his sexual orientation was a closely guarded, never-revealed secret that commanded continuous, if not prurient interest.

Secrets have a way of inspiring journalistic investigation and, when that produces little, rumor abounds. But the basis for much of the tabloid fascination over Hoover's sexual preferences was his relationship to a "friend" whith whom he was never seen without, his deputy who was so much more in terms of intimacy and expectations, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, "The Social Network"). But there's more to ring the bells of those who thirst for scandal.

Though it's represented differently in the more cautious and restrained version by Eastwood, claims still exist of the big man wearing a cocktail dress at a gay orgy in New York. In the Eastwood version, Hoover throws on his mom Annie Hoover's (Judy Dench, "Casino Royale") dress in the privacy of his bedroom after her death, implying he does it as some sort of homage to the woman who played so big a role in his life.

The pic cuts back and forth through time, giving us a hint of where we are on the continuum of Hoover's life from his twenties to age seventy seven by way of makeup, dress styles and other visual clues. The purpose is to reveal the effects that events in his early life had on his later fears and leadership decisions. But the technique is also a risk in terms of clarity vs. murkiness -- one that Eastwood and his film editors don't always surmount.

The undynamic quality of Eastwood's insistence on tastefulness over that which sells newspapers and puts movies on the top ten list is on safer ground when it explores the more technical and, ultimately, glorious accomplishments of the Director and his agency. His desire for receiving the respect and adulation of the public, leads to J. Edgar taking credit for killing the outlaw Dillinger when it was widely known that he was nowhere near the Oklahoma alley where Agent Purvis brought the life of the headline-grabbing folkloric fugitive who was such a burr in Hoover's spine to an end. This was fully treated in the John Milius film, "Dillinger."

But that was only the beginning of a big change in Hoover's modus operandi. Changing his pathetic falsity into fact, Hoover was, from then on, at the scene, wielding his Tommy Gun when his team of agents took criminals down. His legacy as crime-fighter par excellence was being built and it'll never be taken away from him.

Blacker episodes dot the Eastwood landscape when he dares to depict the film's hero as he went after his perceived enemies, chief among them, Martin Luther King, Jr. Clearly ingnorant of the effect it would have with his yearning for popular respect, he attempted to influence King to reject the Nobel Peach Prize. Here and in actual fact, it was always clear that the man at the top of law enforcement wasn't tuned into the consequences of his tyrannical measures, of which this is only one example in this assemblage of highlights.

DiCaprio's personal appeal, a combination of decency and taste, instills the agreeable bone in his character's historical corpus and, if the film is going to have legs in the commercial zone, it's this actor's doing. His long hours in the makeup chair (I hope some of it was sleep time) pays off with a notable portrayal that will produce kudos and make him a 2011 contender. Eastwood's instincts in casting are almost unassailable, which is fortunate given that any actor he wants, who is available, will likely be willing to work for him for scale.

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SPECIAL FEATURES:
  • J Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World
  • Tom Stern's low key lighting is, to this viewer, more a sign of production haste than the fulfillment of a rich aesthetic. It is the fingerprint of a director who loves deep, detail-less shadows and, by the way, won't compromise his shooting schedule for a fuller range of lighting.

    The size of the cast is enormous, but here are a few key castings for characters in Hoover's world: Besides Naomi Watts capable performance as J. Edgar's executive assistant Helen Gandy, Dermon Mulroney plays Colonel Schwarzkopf, Josh Lucas plays Charles Lindbergh, Christopher Shyer is Richard Nixon; Damon Herriman plays accused killer Bruno Hauptmann; Emily Alyn Lind does Shirley Temple; Gunner Wright plays Dwight Eisenhower; David A. Cooper plays Franklin Roosevelt; Jamie LaBarber is Ginger Rogers; Jeffrey Donovan plays Robert Kennedy; and Manu Intiraymi limns Alvin Karpis, a cold-blooded outlaw of the Dillinger days.

    From tyrant to glory seeker, from momma's boy to repressed homosexual, Hoover makes a potentially fine subject for an historical look back. Doing so is a history lesson for a generation who never heard of the man. If this isn't the definitive version, however, it has sufficient casting and performance juice to keep cash registers ringing and credit cards swiping, though it looks like a dud in the Academy Award category.

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                                          ~~  Jules Brenner  
    

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    Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer
    J. Edgar Hoover and Clyde Tolson, ever at his side.
    Before a congressional committee.

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