This post is the unedited, and original, version of J. Edgar’s published film review that appeared in our film criticism column “Animadversion” December 18, 2011 (IMAGES on SUNDAY, the DAWN GROUP OF NEWSPAPERS). Both Images of the hardcopy and the online link are present at the end of the post.
With Absolute Power, Comes Utter Prejudice
By Mohammad Kamran Jawaid
Deep within the final act of “J. Edgar”, Leonardo DiCaprio, playing a 70-year old Hoover in a weeing wispy toupee and badly aged latex make-up defines the core of the movie: “Even today there are organizations that have America as their prime target, they would destroy the safety and happiness of every individual and thrust us into a condition of lawlessness, immorality that hashes the imagination”.
Out of context, the dialogue has the timeless relevance of hysteric propaganda, except, for someone who would have made it thus far watching this movie one realizes that it is a cry of help from a scared old man, who may lose an empire he’s staunchly built and safeguarded.
Pinning down historic mistakes of others is old news in movie-making and the new displaced biopic of legendary FBI honcho J. Edgar Hoover directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for Milk), does nothing different when it paints a man so deeply inflicted with a passion to eradicate “radicals” that his sense of justice becomes a mockery of power and personal prejudice. At its personal best, J. Edgar is about a flawed, stubborn man who’s given too much influence and control.
In one of the earliest scenes, a much younger J.Edgar (DiCaprio without the over-burdened makeup), fires one of his agents because of his insistence to wear a moustache and his slightly flashy suits. In another, he shifts agent Pervis – the one responsible for mob-boss John Dillinger’s death – to a desk job, because he was hotly handled at the justice department’s public hearing for his lack of personal involvement on the outlaws capture.
From what we see (fictionalized, and acknowledged in the film itself that they didn’t exactly happen the way it is shown), J. Edgar had an inflexible idea of warped democracy and freedom that rose with his years in the service. While it may have included forensic breakthroughs and watch-dog like motifs – in a crucial scene we see him listening to a wiretap of Martin Luther King Jr.’s infidelity just before John F. Kennedy was shot; from the way it is presented I thought it gave an old man a new toy to play with, in the name of National Security.
It may have well be a good bet on paper, especially the screenplay by Black, which intelligently – and at times sympathetically – dances around J. Edgar’s closeted sexual preference and the weighty, cruel and solemn, authority of his mother Annie (Judie Dench – who could very well be a close relative to Norman Bates mother, the way she’s portrayed). “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” she tells him flat when he explains his conflicted feelings about not being able to dance at a starlet’s insistence.
Early on, and then especially later, one roots for Naomi Watts, who plays Helen Gandy, Edgar’s lifelong secretary. At one point, Edgar asks for her hand in marriage on their first date. Watt’s sensitive, but limited screen exposure undermines a wonderful character that might have shone better than Arnie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson – the Associate Director of the FBI, whose lesser credentials gave him a lifelong stint in the department in front of more suitable candidates because Edgar felt instant fireworks when they first met.
Told mostly in awkwardly intermingled flashbacks that add themselves without requisite, the romance is bitter sweet, and works in fit and starts – exactly like Eastwood’s take. With minimalistic lighting (read: unnecessarily gloomy lighting, as if the producers failed to pay K.E.S.C.) and almost non-existent background score, the film fails to add a moving rhythm to what could have been a good motion picture. So far, J. Edgar is very much like the man it seeks to describe. Longwinded and distant.
The published copy online is:
The Hardcopy version is: