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J Edgar (AF)


Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer

Director: Clint Eastwood

A surprisingly large swathe of commentators have taken Eastwood and his screenwriter Dustin Lance Black to task for not making more of FBI legend Hoover’s reported homosexuality and penchant for cross-dressing. Given Black’s Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, proof of his ability to examine homosexuality without melodrama, I can only assume that Eastwood made the decision to concentrate on Hoover’s extraordinary life and career rather than on his private life, summed up by Hoover/DiCaprio’s line, ““It’s time this generation learned my side of the story”.

Eastwood and DiCaprio, who gives his most impressive performance since, aged 19, he wiped the screen with Robert De Niro in This Boy’s Life in 1993, have made a magnificent movie.

DiCaprio gives the compelling story of psychologically damaged Hoover’s rise from legal apparatchik to head of America’s rightly feared Federal Bureau of Investigation convincing power in a biopic that cleverly switches back and forth in time to illuminate its ‘hero’s’ triumphs.

Early on, Hoover states he sees his role as needing to “Outsmart and outmatch the public enemy at every turn” and he does just that, putting himself at the forefront of the fledgling bureau’s successes by ensuring he turns up at just the right publicity friendly moment when agents bring public enemies into the sights of the media, burnishing his image and helping him in a career that culminated in his using his armoury of the secret lives of the rich and powerful to pressure them into doing this his way. In this respect, seeing DiCaprio/Hoover ‘blackmail’ easy targets like the Kennedys is both chilling and fascinating in seeing how he brought famous feet of clay into the public view.

Those keen for cross-dressing are briefly but vividly catered for when a fraught and unhappy Hoover dons his dead mother’s dress (Dench, inciedntally, is excellent as his mother).

Described at one stage as having “No wife, no girlfriends, no pals”, mommy’s boy Hoover’s long time relationship with his colleague and friend Tolson (well played by Hammer, despite being rather betrayed by less-than-convincing ageing makeup, in strong contrast to DiCaprio whose prosthetic-and-make-up ageing is particularly effective) comes over strongly enough to round out Hoover’s character without resorting to Shame-style full frontal frankness.

For my money, Eastwood is one of the finest contemporary American directors. J Edgar is a major work by any standards and a biopic to treasure.

Alan Frank

USA 2011. UK Distributor: Warner. Technicolor.
136 minutes. Widescreen. UK certificate: 15.

Guidance ratings (out of 3): Sex/nudity 0, Violence/Horror 1, Drugs 1, Swearing 1.

Review date: 22 Jan 2012