So last Sunday I had the chance to see J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio’s latest biopic. Luckily, my local theatre had a showing of the original version rather than one dubbed in French, so that was the one I saw.
There’s a more detailed review after the jump, but long story short: Watch this movie. You won’t regret it.
Please note that this review contains spoilers, so click with caution.
Usually before I see a film, I make a point of reading at least a few reviews. This time I didn’t, and I’m glad for it, because it that way I was pleasantly surprised when what I thought would be a straight-up historical drama/ action-adventure film turned out to be a sweet, poignant love story.
Okay, let’s get this out of the way- Leo DiCaprio is gorgeous. As is the rest of the cast. And fine actors every one of them. The only DiCaprio movies I’ve seen are Titanic and Inception, so I can’t comment as to how his performance compares to, say, The Aviator, but judged solely on its own merits I loved his portrayal of J. Edgar Hoover.
For those of you who aren’t familiar with him, J. Edgar Hoover was the first director of what is now known as the Federal Bureau of Investigation or, more commonly, the FBI. He made the FBI into a modern, crime-fighting force, and pioneered several advances in scientific police work, such as a centralized fingerprint database and the use of forensics and expert testimony in investigations and trials. But, as J. Edgar deftly reveals, he was not above using the means at his disposal to harass and threaten people he saw as enemies of the United States. In fact, the term of the FBI director is now limited in part because of Hoover’s long tenure and the massive influence he wielded during his time in office.
But that’s not what J. Edgar is about, at least, not entirely. Hoover’s FBI career is used as a backdrop to explore his personal life, specifically his loving yet overbearing mother (played by the always brilliant Dame Judi Dench), his ever-faithful secretary Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts, and she is spectacular), and his second-in-command and partner, Clyde Tolsen (played by Arnie Hammer, who starts off incredible and just gets better as the movie goes on.)
The relationship between Edgar and Clyde forms the crux of the movie. To both director Clint Eastwood’s credit as well as that of leads DiCaprio and Hammer, it doesn’t feel overdone or forced. Indeed, it’s all the more powerful for its understatedness, for the underlying tragedy of two men who are at once deeply bound to each other and yet forever separated by society.
But as much as I love DiCaprio and Hammer, my favourite people in this movie are the women in Edgar’s life. His mother, Anna Marie Hoover, the driving force behind Edgar, is played with typical perfection by Judi Dench. It’s clear that Edgar lives for her approval, and that his inability to express his feelings for Clyde stems in large part from his mother’s sentiment that she’d rather have a dead son than a homosexual one. One of the most powerful scenes in the movie takes place shortly after her death. Edgar stands in front of the mirror, dressing himself first in his mother’s pearls and then in one of her dresses, telling himself, ‘Be strong, Edgar.’ even as he clearly fights not to break down.
The other woman in Edgar’s life is his secretary, Miss Gandy. She is his first and perhaps most steadfast ally, and Naomi Watts does a marvelous job, of showing a woman who is at once Edgar’s subordinate and his rock. Too often movies about men give short shrift to the women in their lives, but I’m very pleased to say that that isn’t the case with J. Edgar.
In sum: J. Edgar is a wonderful, heartbreaking, gorgeously crafted love story. Watch it if you’re a fan of history, watch it if you’re a fan of romance, watch it if you’re a fan of Leo DiCaprio or Clint Eastwood… and if none of those things is enough to compel you, go ahead and watch it anyway. It’s just that good.