He served eight presidents over the course of an unprecedented 50-year career, and ruled the Federal Bureau of Investigation with an iron hand and iron will. His intense dedication to fighting crime and promoting the strong arm of the law led to significant scientific and organizational advances in the field, yet his paranoia and insecurities inspired him to wiretap and blackmail high-ranking officials in an effort to assert his authority and keep his job. He had no personal life - work consumed him - and only three meaningful relationships - with his mother, his loyal secretary, and a trusted colleague who would later become an intimate "friend." He was a small man, but his aura loomed large, and he presided like a tsar over one of America's most powerful agencies (which he nurtured from its infancy) during one of the most turbulent eras of American history, encompassing Prohibition, the Great Depression, World War II, McCarthyism, the Cold War, and the Civil Rights Movement. To know him was to fear him, but the question remains...did anyone really know J. Edgar Hoover?
Director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black try to answer that question, and though their film, 'J. Edgar,' doesn't profess to be a definitive biopic, it nevertheless presents a balanced, absorbing portrait of a complex man with a strong moral center and forthright ideals, whose ambition, ego, and inner demons transformed him into a ruthless prick who would stop at nothing to further his agenda and neutralize his enemies. It didn't matter if you were a movie star, first lady, or President of the United States. No one was safe from J. Edgar. Not even himself.
'J. Edgar' will never be regarded as one of the great movie biographies, but Eastwood tackles his subject with uncompromising honesty and sensitivity, and meticulously recreates the periods during which Hoover reigned. He also foregoes a linear approach in favor of multiple flashbacks and a revelatory denouement that provides a resonant coda to the film. Though Eastwood telegraphs Hoover's political agenda over and over (and over) again, the events the FBI chief witnesses and in which he participates are so colorful and important, we forgive the repetition. The 1919 Communist riots in Washington, D.C. profoundly effected the young Hoover and forever shaped his attitude toward patriotism and impending threats from outside entities. His protective instincts caused him to be suspicious of everything and everybody, and he made sure he had the goods on anyone who remotely threatened him and his country. Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy were only a couple of the famous figures on whom he dug up dirt, and he didn't hesitate to use what he learned for personal gain. In addition to overseeing the Lindbergh kidnapping case and the pursuit of outlaw John Dillinger, Hoover championed the development of a centralized fingerprint bank, engineered the card catalogue system at the Library of Congress, ceaselessly promoted the FBI (as well as himself), hobnobbed with celebrities, and tried his best to smear Dr. Martin Luther King. As the saying goes, "absolute power corrupts absolutely," and the older Hoover got, the more bitter, vindictive, and paranoid he became.
Hoover was not a particularly likable character (though on occasion he could be capable of an awkward charm), but his frailties - abnormal attachment to his mother, insecurities about his height and self-worth, a childhood speech impediment - at least make him human, and allow us to understand why he sought respect, validation, and admiration with such fervency throughout his life, and demanded unflappable loyalty from those closest to him. Despite his myriad faults, it's impossible not to admire - and pity - him, even as we detest his tactics, self-absorption, and small-mindedness.
Due to its episodic nature, 'J. Edgar' lacks some steam as it chugs through its 137-minute running time, and actually plays better on a second viewing when one is more familiar with its layout and can better concentrate on the nuances and character tics that drive the film. 'J. Edgar' bites off a lot of history and presents it from an insider's perspective, so digesting it all can be a challenge (especially when we bounce back and forth in time), but Eastwood manages the broad canvas with ease, and his lyrical yet hard-boiled presentation suits his subject well. More than a few minutes probably could be shaved off without sacrificing information and impact, but the leisurely pacing allows us to appreciate the breadth and import of Hoover's life and times.
Despite Eastwood's sure hand, 'J. Edgar' would be nothing without the superior work of Leonardo DiCaprio, who justly earned another Golden Globe nomination for his vigorous portrayal. Hoover, at least on the surface, was pretty much a one-note guy, but DiCaprio expands the scale by lending him subtle shadings that deftly expose the turmoil churning inside him. J. Edgar is at his most vulnerable and sensitive when interacting with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), and DiCaprio captures those feelings without ever completely letting down the character's carefully constructed guard. The man's life revolved around secrets, and he learned early on how to keep his own, so it's a tribute to DiCaprio that despite Hoover's efforts to remain aloof, the actor is able to bring him down to earth, get under his skin, and portray him as a man, not a symbol.
As his two long-time companions and business associates, Naomi Watts, who plays personal assistant Helen Gandy, and Armie Hammer, who portrays right-hand man Clyde Tolson, both assert themselves well as they quietly complement DiCaprio. Watts has a rather thankless role that requires her to be rigidly stoic and obedient, yet she transmits a dedication and caring attitude that go well beyond her professional position. Hammer, who made a nice splash in 'The Social Network,' impresses even more here, as a man who's unafraid to express his feelings in a socially repressed era. Did Tolson and Hoover have a homosexual relationship? Speculation has run rampant, but no one really knows for sure, and the film wisely leaves the question open to debate. Hammer and DiCaprio, however, develop a comfortable intimacy that makes the unique alliance believable from any standpoint, and lends the movie a much-needed emotional thread.
Like the man himself, 'J. Edgar' is a little cold, standoffish, and oddly fascinating. It's an intimate character study played out on an epic public stage, and though the film sheds light on the influences and events that shaped Hoover, and humanizes his austere image, it makes no sweeping judgments about his life and how he chose to live it. Quite properly, he remains a figure of mystery, and that's probably just how Hoover himself would have wanted it.
The Blu-ray: Vital Disc Stats
'J. Edgar' arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case inside a sleeve. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and default audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1. Once the disc is inserted into the player, a Blu-ray promo and ad for WB Insider Rewards precede the static menu with music.
In the early going, I was a little concerned about the 'J. Edgar' transfer. The 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 effort from Warner seemed unnaturally dark during the first several scenes. Crush obscured plenty of details and a dreary pall hung over the film. As the action progressed, however, the picture quality markedly improved, and I liked what I saw immensely. Tom Stern's cinematography exudes a lovely lushness that beautifully complements this period tale. Just a hint of grain lends the image welcome texture and an elegant film-like feel. Clarity is excellent, and though contrast seems slightly muted throughout, colors possess nice weight and background details are easy to discern. Fabrics comes across exceptionally well, especially the weaves on the mens' suits, and close-ups look sharp but natural, so the heavy age makeup on the three principals retains its authentic appearance.
Despite a muted palette, the image looks surprisingly lively. Black levels can overpower at times, but generally remain strong, and whites are bright yet stable. Fleshtones are solid, too, and no nicks, scratches, lines, or other print anomalies sully the pristine source material. All in all, this is a stellar transfer that, save for a brief hiccup, should satisfy discriminating audiences.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 track pumps out well-defined sound, and on occasion provides a few impressive jolts. The explosion early in the film just might wake a sleeping baby, as heavy bass rocks the room. Gunfire is also crisp and distinct, and atmospherics, such as street noise and nightclub clammer, faintly bleed into the rears now and then. Because much of 'J. Edgar' is quietly dialogue driven, multi-channel activity is sporadic and not very obtrusive. Some decent stereo separation up front, however, widens the sound field and adds more depth to the track.
A healthy dynamic range handles all the highs and lows with ease, and on the rare occasions when the subwoofer really kicks in, there's no break-up or distortion. Conversations are well prioritized and easy to comprehend, and no imperfections disrupt the purity of the track. For the most part, subtlety is the name of the game here, and though this track isn't flashy, it's true to its source and serves the film well.
Only one extra adorns this disc. An Eastwood/DiCaprio audio commentary and archival footage of Hoover would have added a great deal more to this release, but no such luck. Maybe we'll get a special edition in the future...
'J. Edgar' examines a controversial figure in American history with a keen, unbiased eye, and though Clint Eastwood's biopic never incites a passionate response, it's nevertheless a finely tuned, thoughtfully presented, and often absorbing piece of work that contains another first-rate performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. Warner's Blu-ray treatment is slim on supplements, but features solid audio and video that make the period come alive. The times of J. Edgar Hoover may be more fascinating than his life, but together they form a grand panorama of a rich era that may be gone, but never will be forgotten. Anyone who loves history, admires strong personalities, and appreciates fine acting and directing will find much to like about 'J. Edgar.' Recommended.