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Friday, March 9, 2012

(Published in City Express, The New Indian Express, dated 10 March 2012, retrieved from )

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: 3 stars
In a year that’s acquainted us with the iron lady, the moneyball player, the machine gun preacher, and the prince’s showgirl, next in line isJ Edgar, a biopic on the life of John Edgar Hoover, the first and longest-serving director of the Bureau of Investigation, which would go on to become the FBI.
The tint of the portrayal is apparent in the first scene, when a man snaps at Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), “You know the funny thing about notoriety, especially the kind that needs adoration, fame for fame’s sake? If unchecked, it inevitably leads to villainy. I suggest you look at what this squabble is really about before you destroy the reputation of the thing we both know you love most.”
J Edgar is a very long film, stretching to two hours and forty minutes. But it looks so beautifully evocative of the era it harks back to – 1919 to 1972 – that it’s easy to lose oneself in its fabric. To those interested in history, especially the history of institutions, it may appear fascinating. It takes us from botchy crime scene investigations, to the G-Man hero in a hat, to the sleek sunglass-sporting FBI man. It speaks of the agency’s struggles with the romanticising of dangerous gangsters such as Bonny and Clyde, Baby Face Nelson, and Pretty Boy Floyd, as much as with their clampdown on Bolshevik terror. It hits home in a country like India, where bureaucratic bottlenecks have aided crime for decades.
To its detriment, though, the film is simply too garrulous. As it traces landmark cases that induced changes in law, it strives and fails to spare us the trouble of turning to Google and Wikipedia. One wishes Clint Eastwood had just told the skeletal story, and left it to the viewer to read up on the specifics, as he does in the case of Hoover’s vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr.
One of the most enjoyable aspects of Eastwood’s filmmaking is the inherent irony in his screenplay, and that’s wonderfully expressed in one scene – Hoover issues a public interest appeal, calling for the portrayal of bank robbers as dodgy criminals and not maverick heroes. The advertisement precedes a gangster flick called The Public Enemy. But there’s a surplus of contrived scenes that function as nods to various aspects of the movie, including one where Hoover settles on his signature, ‘J Edgar’.
The story of a fallible hero, who boosts his public image in his considerable spare time, is told through his relationships with his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his companion-deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film manages to highlight several shades in Hoover’s bond with Tolson, and his confusion about his sexuality, especially when he’s under the influence of his domineering mother (Judi Dench). But Hoover’s own story is so cinematically predictable that it fails to affect us.
The Verdict: One walks away from the film thinking about how lovely it would have been had it talked a little less.


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