By Anne Thompson | Thompson on Hollywood November 4, 2011 at 7:16PM
All eyes are on the last batch of major year-end movies to be factored into the Oscar zeitgeist. Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar, at least, will play better for the older Academy--many of whom lived through the decades depicted in this ambitious J. Edgar Hoover biopic dominated by Leonardo DiCaprio's moving performance in the title role--than the wider moviegoing public. Eastwood acknowledged this during his intro at Thursday's AFI FEST opening night unveiling at Mann's Chinese, thanking Warner Bros., his home for 41 years, for supporting so many offbeat projects that were not mainstream: "Sometimes they turned out pretty good," he said.
Indeed, Eastwood has delivered a consistent string of quality films, even after his career peaks, the Oscar-winning Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby. Written by Milk's Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar cross-cuts between the old Hoover, not willing to release his hold on the reins of power after 48 years and eight presidents (many of them afraid of his secret files), and flashbacks to his life from age 19 through his rise to power at the Bureau of Investigation (eventually the FBI). Hoover started out responding vigilantly to terrorist violence and wound up corrupt, paranoid and egomaniacal.
More details and a round-up of early reviews are below.
As he did in Unforgiven, Eastwood explores how media manipulates the perception of people in the public eye. Again, many of us know more about how Hoover was portrayed in fictional comic books than the real story. The Lindbergh kidnapping figures in this compelling narrative, as does Attorney General Robert Kennedy (Eastwood regular Jeffrey Donovan). The three people closest to Hoover-- who is depicted as a closeted homosexual--are his secretary (Naomi Watts), his mother (Judi Dench) and his best friend and lieutenant (Armie Hammer), who all remain loyal to the bitter end. (All three could wind up with Oscar nominations, and DiCaprio will give George Clooney a run for the Best Actor Oscar.)
Their understanding love for Hoover, along with DiCaprio's star wattage under piles of digitally enhanced age makeup, give the film its tragic dimension. Like Brokeback Mountain, this unfulfilled romance is about the love that dare not speak its name. How these two men negotiated their intimate relationship is fascinating--and heartbreaking. They dated no women, held hands but did not kiss, slept alone in their own homes--and ate lunch and dinner together every day.
Eastwood delivers again.
"J. Edgar is a mightily ambitious work that provokes a host of assorted reactions,..This surprising collaboration between director Clint Eastwood and Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black tackles its trickiest challenges with plausibility and good sense, while serving up a simmeringly caustic view of its controversial subject's behavior, public and private. Big-name talent behind and in front of the camera, led by a committed performance by Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, assures extensive media attention and public curiosity up to a point."
"The film’s first hour is problematic and somewhat turgid. Eastwood and his cinematographer Tom Stern decided to shoot in grim desaturated colours and make use of heavy shadows, which hardly helps a muddy narrative that takes a while to cohere. But in the second hour, Eastwood does what he does so well which is to focus on the characters,..Indeed, as always, when Eastwood turns his compassionate eye onto the frailties and emotions of his characters, the film flies and reminds us why he remains one of the world’s most vital filmmakers. It’s hard not to tear up when Tolson sobs over Hoover’s body, but Eastwood isn’t making us cry about Hoover in particular. Ever the humanist, he is merely showing one man crying for the loss of his lifelong love."
"While not exactly coy, Eastwood's classically styled look at Hoover's life takes a long time to arrive at questions of the character's proclivities. When it does get there, however, this new dimension of the character so enlivens what has been a mostly dry portrayal of one man's crusade to reform law enforcement that it becomes the pic's focus,..The opening reel establishes both the scope of the story, which ranges from Hoover's 20s to his final days overseeing the FBI at age 77, and DiCaprio's remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes. There's an innate kindliness to DiCaprio that makes for a more likable protagonist than Hoover as the tempestuous monster so many biographers describe, which is good news for the film's commercial prospects but seemingly at odds with reality."
"Leonardo DiCaprio is exceptional in the title role, digging into an incredibly complex character, committing from frame one to the embodiment and maintaining that course without losing focus. It's at times a broad portrayal of a broad persona, but I thought the actor found ways to dial it down and make the internal machinations of the man count. And I think it could very well carry him to that elusive first Oscar win. The film itself, though, wasn't as impressive. The problems mostly stem from a somewhat lazy, arbitrarily structured "greatest hits" screenplay from Dustin Lance Black. It's clunky and labored, but it's really only part of the problem."