J. Edgar

J. Edgar

***

Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

Telling the story of somebody at once as elusive and as outspoken as J Edgar Hoover was always going to be difficult, but the puzzles it presents are intriguing. Clint Eastwood, close to the end of his directorial career but still capable of flashes of brilliance, clearly saw it as a challenge, and it's difficult to think of a director who could have engaged with it more successfully. For all his civilised trappings, the J Edgar we meet here is essentially a western hero, a gunslinger who has found himself sheriff and is trying to keep order with limited tools at his disposal. Eastwood effectively demolished the legends that grow up around such men in Unforgiven, and he shows no mercy here - but sympathy, that's always present.

It's a story about masculinity, about ambition and a certain dependency on ambition, with echoes of Citizen Kane. As such, it faces the same central problem as all such films - persuading viewers to care about the fate of a man who diligently refuses to show emotion. There's anger, of course, and occasionally a sort of bruised wistfulness, and the odd scene of malicious glee, but little else. Leonardo DiCaprio works hard to make something of this but isn't quite able to get to grips with the dual task of being true to the role and making it appealing. Fortunately, he's backed up by Armie Hammer as right hand man (and possibly more) Tolson. Though he gets relatively little screentime, the underrated Hammer delivers a nuanced performance that forms the film's emotional core, and it's through his responses to apparently empty glances that we glimpse the human being behind the self-invented legend.

Copy picture

That awareness of legend is there from the start and it's key to an understanding of a film packed full of red herrings. Every action of J Edgar's seems dynamic yet soulless, brutal yet justified - but of course, it's his version of the story that we're seeing, and nothing can be taken at face value. One is reminded of the underlying theme in The Social Network - that some men work really hard to be seen as monsters, and might be happier that way than if people know who they really are. Such is the control the semi-fictionalised J Edgar exercises over this story that it only gradually becomes apparent how great his need for that control is.

The origins of this need are approached with some caution. A brief flashback explores J Edgar's widely rumoured transvestism, but Eastwood avoids easy conclusions. There are multiple layers of personality here, some of them deliberately cultivated, and it's hard to be sure where we might find the truth. The one quality that does seem innate, coming thogh increasingly as the tale is told, is weariness, and it is ultimately this that DiCaprio uses to draw us closer to his character in the final scenes.

With noirish lighting and most of the running time spent inside offices or cramped domestic rooms, Eastwood keeps the film claustrophobic, sometimes unpleasantly intimate. The result is sometimes difficult to watch but cannot be faulted for its boldness in producing a complex portrait of an uncompromising man.

Reviewed on: 27 Sep 2013
Share this with others on...
Biopic about the controversial FBI director.
Amazon link

Festivals:


Search database:


If you like this, try:

Citizen Kane
Public Enemies