In His Solitude

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Leonardo DiCaprio takes on an unlikely role and produces a strong and measured performance in Clint Eastwood’s historical drama J. Edgar.

As a reenactment of history, advice it’s a beautifully realized job; settings, view costumes, unhealthy props and atmosphere have been meticulously rendered, thanks to the scrupulous job by Eastwood and his team of realizing Dustin Lance Black’s subtle and intelligent script down to what seems the tiniest grace note. And as a portrait of a man who shaped, and was shaped by, some of the more notorious events in 20th century American history, it’s as smart and nuanced as any piece of commercial film making you’re likely to see coming out of Hollywood these days.

DiCaprio looks and sounds nothing like the real-life J. Edgar Hoover, but he does a powerful job of capturing the version of Hoover suggested by Black’s script. It’s a characterization often marked by an almost sinister stillness, a quiet and steely control that allows him to remain the focal point of every scene even when surrounded by charismatic and frequently far more active performances.

Flashing back and forth from the early ‘70s to points throughout Hoover’s 50-plus-year career in federal law enforcement, the film allows us to piece together the way in which a repressed and, to quote one of its characters, “fussy little man” slowly transformed himself into a monster intoxicated by power and a rigidly unwavering belief in his own convictions.

In this telling, Hoover’s progressive innovations at the FBI – such as his creation of a centralized fingerprint bank and increasing reliance on forensic science – were born of the same obsession with order and control that informed a dictatorial leadership style and aggressive micromanagement of his and the Bureau’s public image. And his drive to amass the power required to maintain that control led to illegal spying on American citizens and blackmailing politicians, public figures and even presidents.

Hoover’s rumored homosexuality is a given here, though it’s depicted as deeply closeted and self-denying. His longtime relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is played with subtlety and occasional hints of sadness. Hoover basks in the handsome Tolson’s reflected glamour, takes tips on how to dress like a member of the social class he aspires to, and otherwise insists on pretending that Tolson is nothing more than a very good friend. It’s difficult to see what Tolson gets out of it other than the opportunity to love Hoover without expectation of much in return. (Hammer is allowed one scene in which he vents his frustration, a scene as remarkable for his depiction of a sensitive man in pain as for DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover’s inability to lower his wall and make an essential human connection.)

The flashiest moments are those that recount the FBI’s war on Depression-era gangsters and, most tellingly, the painful search for the Lindbergh baby and the subsequent hunt for his kidnapper. Period detail in these scenes is vivid and recreated with loving care, so much so that those familiar with the historical record may be jarred by the cinematic Hoover’s hands-on participation in some famous arrests. Trust Dustin Lance Black, who’s too careful a writer to commit make such a simple mistake.

Naomi Watts is convincing but mostly unremarkable in the thankless role of Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s secretary for 54 years and to whom he entrusted his secret blackmail files. More striking is the performance of Judi Dench as Hoover’s domineering mother, a frighteningly judgmental control freak whose influence shaped the rest of his life; in fact, the film suggests that in many ways, Hoover became her after her death.

So much of the film works so well, it’s a little painful to consider those parts that don’t. Not all the actors called upon to play recognizable historical figures are convincing; Jeffrey Donovan is borderline ludicrous as Robert Kennedy, and Christopher Shyer’s Richard Nixon is simply disappointing.

The single most disappointing element, however, is the makeup applied to the principal actors as Hoover, Tolson and Gandy age into their 60s and 70s. The effect varies from scene to scene, sometimes from shot to shot. DiCaprio’s eternal babyface has frequently been a hurdle for his strong acting to overcome, and in the scenes with Hoover in old age the sense of watching the actor play dress-up is back again. Sometimes his makeup is convincing, sometimes he looks like Mr. Potato Head. Hammer’s makeup is even worse, looking less like old age makeup than the result of a slapstick accident with a vat of white powder.

It’s an unfortunate misstep, but Eastwood’s film is too intelligent and solid to be taken down by an excess of latex. He’s given us a beautifully rendered history lesson and a sobering character study, shot with quiet skill underlaid by an effective score written by the director himself. Listen closely, and within that score you’ll hear a sampling of Duke Ellington’s “In My Solitude” – a theme that perfectly describes this film’s portrait of a man so obsessed with ruling his world that he spent his life cutting himself off from it.

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November 14, 2011 · Posted in Now Playing  
    

Masters of Their Fate

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Since he shifted his career into virtually full-time directing, troche Clint Eastwood has never told the same story twice. Think back on the experience of viewing Unforgiven, Mystic River, Flags of Our Fathers and Changeling, among a startling number of others, and the only common thread you’ll find is a consistent level of quiet excellence.

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December 9, 2009 · Posted in Now Playing