by Jef Burnham
Now available in a Blu-ray/DVD Combo Pack from Warner Home Video.
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Director Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar tells the life story of political powerhouse J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI). As a would-be Citizen Kane-type biopic, the film attempts to relate all of the key moments in Hoover’s life and career. Whether too ambitious or not ambitious enough, the film fails to remain engaging while achieving this goal. The film would focus primarily on J. Edgar’s personal relationships with his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), his devoted personal secretary Ms. Gandy (Naomi Watts), and Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). However, the film is far too often side-tracked by Hoover’s political machinations. And given that his career as Director of the Bureau of Investigation and the subsequent FBI spanned over 50 years, the film can afford Hoover’s individual political conflicts very little screen time, even at nearly two and a half hours long. As such, countless repetitive sequences of Hoover blackmailing and berating people for the same things over and over again ultimately prevent Eastwood from presenting these relationships with any real depth. This results in an overall dull, monotonous cinematic experience.
The film does, however, by the very nature of Hoover’s life story, still present some truly scenarios, even if they are summarily abandoned for more of Hoover’s tedious machinations. Hoover’s unrest with the American people for idolizing criminals such as John Dillinger and his subsequent attempts to rectify this by generating positive PR for the FBI through film, radio, and print stands out to me in this regard. Sadly, this amounts to so precious few of the film’s 137 minutes, as much of Hoover’s actions in this arena provide little more than a throwaway bit of dialogue here or there.
Additionally, the speculative romance between Hoover and Tolson had a lot of dramatic potential, but, being historically unproven, this romance too is afforded precious little time. What’s more, when the two men do finally kiss on the lips, the moment is stifled by what I’ll call here “The Brokeback Paradigm.” According to The Brokeback Paradigm, in order for two male stars to share a passionate kiss onscreen, their characters must first fight until blood is drawn to preemptively reassert their masculinity. I find this tendency in cinema rather unsettling and hard to swallow. After all, how many people truly consider being pummeled in a fist fight to be the foundation of a romance? Sure, it takes all sorts, but I worry that this might constitute a disturbing trend in qualifying homosexuality on film that could ultimately harken back to the irresponsible representations of homosexuality in films such as William Friedkin’s Cruising.
The J. Edgar Blu-ray release includes but a single feature, “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.” In it, the film’s cast and crew discuss the significance of J. Edgar Hoover historically and the aspects of his life that inspired the particular approach of the film. Eastwood seems incredibly aloof and reluctant to discuss the film in any depth here, but screenwriter Dustin Lance Black picks up the slack. Ultimately, though, this featurette comes off as little more than a re-affirmation that the events of the film are based on real world events… which we already knew, of course.
Jef Burnham is a writer and educator living in Chicago, Illinois. While waging war on mankind from a glass booth in the parking lot of a grocery store, Jef managed to earn a degree in Film & Video from Columbia College Chicago, and is now the Editor-in-Chief of FilmMonthly.com.
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