Leonardo DiCaprio as notorious FBI director J. Edgar Hoover seems like a pretty odd choice if I was casting the movie. It’s a good thing I’m not, since as it turns out, a thoroughly convincing performance by DiCaprio and some nice make-up work help the film rise above the idea of such a glamorous movie star playing such a decidedly unglamorous historical figure. Like the controversial man himself, the film and its choices — what it chooses to show and what it chooses to ignore — will be open to debate. You can join in that debate with Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar”, which is currently available on DVD, Blu-ray, and from Video on Demand via methods of your choice courtesy of Warner Home Video.
Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception, Blood Diamond) stars as J. Edgar Hoover, head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years. Hoover was feared, admired, reviled and revered, a man who could distort the truth as easily as he upheld it. His methods were at once ruthless and heroic, with the admiration of the world his most coveted prize. But behind closed doors, he held secrets that would have destroyed his image, his career and his life. Oscar Winner Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby, Unforgiven) directs an all-star cast including Naomi Watts (21 Grams), Armie Hammer (The Social Network) and Oscar Winner Judi Dench (Shakespeare in Love) as Hoover’s overprotective mother.
DiCaprio is J. Edgar, the man who would revolutionize crimefighting in America, turning the FBI into the fearsome force that it is today, for good or ill. There are certainly plenty of both, as ol Edgar wasn’t exactly the most ego-free of people, and had just as many skeletons in his closet as the “dangerous” people he was tasked with watching through the decades. But he knew what he wanted, how to get it, and for his efforts, the Bureau is what it is today. Again, for good or ill.
“J. Edgar” traces Hoover’s rise as the country’s first FBI director to his eventual death in the ’70s, and is not so much a scathing critique of the man as it is a surprisingly fair, even-handed approach to telling what made him tick. (Of course, your political leanings may lead you to a different conclusion, which is, of course, your right.) The film, clocking in at over 2 hours, is not nearly as unwieldy as I was expecting. We are dealing with over 50 years in the life of a person who has been instrumental in much of America’s history, after all, so there is a lot to talk about. There are many parts of that history that I really wanted to see more of in the film (Hoover’s hatred of Communists during his boyhood, for example), but alas, the rest of the man’s life must be served, so we are left with episodes rather than in-depth looks. Still, I liked what Eastwood and his writers do give us, with the film jumping back and forth in Hoover’s life. (The J. stands for John, by the way.)
A lot of credit for why “J. Edgar” is the easy sit-through that it is goes to Eastwood. The man has always been economical with his time on the film set, and I think you can see it in his movies. Or at least, I can. Even when his films are long, they always seem to be paced just right, with little of the usual Hollywood excess. Some may find fault with “J. Edgar’s” portrayal of the man, his career, and his involvements with important pieces of American history, but taken as a whole, it works rather well. Or at least, I didn’t have any real problems with it. Mind you, not that I’m an American history buff or anything, but if you wanted a documentary on Hoover, try the History Channel. That is, if they aren’t too busy explaining away all of history’s mysteries as the work of aliens. But I digress.
The film is served by excellent work from DiCaprio, who, shamefully, hasn’t gotten the credit he deserves for the role. I don’t think “J. Edgar” was even a blip during Awards Season last year, but that’s probably to be expected given that “J. Edgar” didn’t go “Oliver Stone” on the fed’s number one man. Hollywood loves sensationalizing history, and “J. Edgar” just isn’t that, which is probably why I like it. Besides DiCaprio, “J. Edgar” benefits from an outstanding cast, from Judi Dench as Hoover’s strong mother to Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, the man who stood beside Hoover through the decades. Jeffrey Donovan (of “Burn Notice” fame) also does good work as Robert Kennedy, as does Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal to a fault secretary.
The “J. Edgar” Blu-ray Combo Pack comes with the film in Blu-ray and standard DVD, as well as the Ultraviolet option to stream the film to your various portable devices. If, you know, you’re into that sort of stuff. In terms of bonus features, Warner certainly let me down here. Even when they go cheap, they usually make some effort when it comes to the extras. Not so much here. There is a single special feature called “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World”, which is an 18-minute featurette that explores the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover. Well, as much as you can explore in 18 minutes, anyway. You get a lot of talking head interviews with the cast and crew. Yeah, that’s pretty much it.
On the bright side, “J. Edgar” the movie is good enough on its own that I don’t hesitate to recommend it if you, like most of America and the world, decided to skip it when it landed in theaters last year. Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance alone might be worth it.