J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood

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J. Edgar, Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood

“The FBI in Peace and War”–was that the title of the radio drama? I never listened, but the music from a companion show, “Dragnet,” even now plays its “bum-bum-bum-bum-bumbumbum” through my head. As historical movies go, or “bio-pics” if you prefer, Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is a marvel. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio morph before your eyes from the smooth-faced young agent-on-the-make to the crinkly-haired, hunched, jowly J. Edgar Hoover of the FBI is, in my book, a marvel of acting. Include his accent, which reminds me of someone eating a mouthful of peanuts without the crunch–all stiff jaw and chew in the hopes of not choking.

Or is the film so powerful because of its lightning-fast shifts from J. Edgar’s home with Judy Dench as Mama (who flirtatiously compliments her son on his new suit) to the Bureau of Investigation line-up of prospective agents–J. Edgar tweaks their ties and warns them against facial hair (presumably to render each sleuth as neutral and unrecognizeable as possible). We shift from glimpses of a pale heroic Lindberg to J. Edgar’s hiring of a beautiful young man who stands on the other side of his desk with a dreamy expression in his dark-lashed blue eyes. Surely the relationship that develops between Hoover and this agent Clyde Tolson, his life-long friend, is homosexual. But was it consummated? The movie teases us with this–they reach for each other’s hands in a cab, with Mama up front who will be dropped off first. As J. Edgar mentions taking up with actress Dorothy Lamour and asks, “Is it time for a Mrs. J. Edgar,” Tolson attacks him in their side-by-side hotel rooms. After that brawl, a kiss must follow. Their bruised bloody lips say a lot–without anyone having to fess-up.

DiCaprio’s acting is superb. Ditto Mama and Tolson and long-time secretary Helen who refuses to marry Hoover early in their young rise to power, but agrees instead to become his private secretary. She outlives him, and in the end, true to her promise, empties the files and starts shredding. Did shredders exist in the Nixon administration? My husband and I decide probably so for government offices, if not for private homes. It is this kernel of intense secrecy played against Hoover’s many sleuthing innovations that we now take for granted–like fingerprinting or analysis of crime scenes like a science lab–that support his importance in the story of fighting crime. His importance and his weakness–he wanted the glory, and in the thread that recurs throughout the film, he dictates many lies to young agents writing his memoirs. Hoover claims more for himself than he deserved, for instance that he arrested the kidnapper of the Lindberg baby (whose pathetic little skeleton was found near the Lindberg mansion). A lie, but Hoover did push for the analysis of the wood used to build the ladder which the kidnapper climbed to steal the baby from a second -floor bedroom. Throughout the shifts back and forth in time and between public and private realms, we see Hoover become more aggressive in publishing and burnishing his own valor. Was it the rise of a monomania or the necessary P.R. to keep Congressional approval of funds? There is no easy answer.

I’ve admired Clint Eastwood in films (The Good, Bad and the Ugly), but I think this might be the first film he’d directed that completely mesmerized me. Cudos to the screenplay as well, written by Dustin Lance Black, but from my small experience with film-making, the magic is often in the editing. This I credit to Eastwood. Not a through-story like the wonderful “King’s Speech” from last year (which we thought of here because of the astonishing casts in each), “J. Edgar” emphasizes the clip and dissolve possibilities of movie-editing–quick shifts in time, place, age of main character, etc. I found it riveting, and a good choice for portraying a man who hid a lot, whose public persona was not the most loveable, and yet in the films end by being largely sympathetic if humanly fallible.

Final comment: the music was composed by director Eastwood and one of his seven children, Kyle, performed in the movie combo.

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