Saturday, 2 June 2012

J. Edgar

As an ageing Director of the FBI nears the end of his tenure, he dictates his memoires to a young agent. This is a straightforward biopic depicting the life of the creator an long-time Director of the FBI - J Edgar Hoover. In the title role is Leonardo DiCaprio who delivers a convincing and consistent performance of a man who was enslaved to his drivenness. He is ably supported by Naomi Watts who plays his life-long PA Helen Gandy and less ably supported by Arnie Hammer who appears as one of the Winklevi from Social Network - rather than Clyde Tolson, Hoover's assistant (it doesn't help that as Tolson ages his make-up becomes less convincing!).

In the retelling of history - particularly recent history, there will always be a divergence of opinion. That Hoover remained in post and worked under so many Presidents is testimony to his own political skills and also the confidential files he kept on all who held public office. From the threat of Communist revolutionaries in the 1920s through to the Nixon era, the film shows a bewildering passage of history as the infant nation seeks to establish a sense of identity.

Another strong performance comes from Dame Judy Dench who plays Hoover's mother, Annie. Fearing for her son's well-being and wary of his latent homosexuality, she even teaches him to dance so that he can appropriately court young ladies. When Helen Gandy turns up in the secretarial pool of the agency something is kindled in Hoover's heart but she rebuffs him citing dedication to the agency and the need to remain focussed. It is Clyde Tolson who becomes his permanent companion and Deputy and the film gently allows for the possibility of a life-long gay encounter to simmer throughout. There have been many disputes about Hoover's sexual orientation and activities that cover almost the entire possible spectrum. (For a precis look him up in wikipedia.)

Much of the story has to do with the battle between federal and provincial jurisdiction as The USA works out what it is to be nation. The film also highlights the origins of modern forensic science and its development as a tool to fight crime. It is, for me, these aspects rather than the characters we are presented with which are the more interesting!

This is a plodding retelling of someone's life with the emphasis on putting the 'right' interpretation and gloss on events that history will record in a variety of (conflicting) ways. The methods and achievements highlight the best and worst aspects of America's story. At 137 minutes it is too long. Clint Eastwood's direction is as strong as ever, but there is simply too much stuff in the story line which at the end of the day makes it feel like and apology for a national hero the nation loves but has never really understood.

The performances from DiCaprio, Watts and Dench are top drawer - but they cannot redeem what is an over-long, plodding and at times uninteresting film. I'll give 6/10.

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