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Review

Muddled, confusing plot holds back otherwise strong film

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December 16, 2011

Secrets and information are probably more dangerous than any conventional weapon. In the political world, there’s nothing more powerful than having dirt on the right people, and J. Edgar Hoover wrote the book on it, then promptly shredded it.

Director Clint Eastwood tries his hand at capturing just what made Hoover such a fascinating person in “J. Edgar” with the help of some incredibly strong performances. Sadly, the narrative structure doesn’t do the insanely interesting subject matter any favors. If anything, the non-linear set-up, which leaves multiple narrative threads for audiences to keep up with and sort out is the biggest factor that holds “J. Edgar” back from being a great film.

Leonardo DiCaprio turns in a stunning performance as the titular creator of the FBI, and champion of forensic science, from his early 20s until the day he died. There are moments when the age make-up and prosthetics can be eerie and even offputting, but DiCaprio fights through it and still manages to convey every subtle emotion necessary to play one of the most powerful men in American history.

From his calculated, but nervous movements to his speech patterns, which range from methodical and spirited speeches to Congress to the nervous near-stammering of a man trying too hard to control everything around him, DiCaprio gives a completely believable portrait of a multifaceted titan of history.

All historical bio-pics deal with the difficult task of choosing which parts of a person’s character to illuminate and spend time with on screen, but Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Blank, (best known for his Oscar-winning script for 2008’s “Milk”) had an extra wrench thrown into the system due to longstanding rumors that Hoover was a closeted homosexual and crossdresser. “J. Edgar” uses that particular thread as part of its story in an interesting way, and I can say that Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, an FBI agent played by Armie Hammer of “The Social Network” fame, is fascinating. This relationship forms the cornerstone of the movie and fits in perfectly with the themes of deception that Eastwood is playing with throughout the film.

Hammer is one of the finest up-and-coming actors in Hollywood and he’s in top form here as Hoover’s confidant and No. 2 man. There’s a scene near the climax of “J. Edgar” where Hammer really shines as emotions finally boil over. Later in the film, Hammer plays Tolson in the wake of a stroke with the care and attention to detail that only a devoted actor can show. It’s really something else. It’s a shame the age make-up is as much of a problem as it is for DiCaprio.

While the acting in “J. Edgar” is top notch, the disjointed story kills a lot of the momentum and ends up making the film feel like a collection of short stories rather than a fully fleshedout narrative. Usually, Eastwood is a master storyteller with a vice-like grip on his narrative. Maybe he became too entrenched in trying to portray Hoover in a realistic manner and let the threads of the story get away from him. While “J. Edgar” lacks cohesion, it does a wonderful job of painting a portrait of a historical figure and showcasing both the positive and negative aspects of his character.

“J. Edgar” may be a slight misstep in the long and lustrous career of Eastwood, but it is still worth a watch just to see multiple actors at the top of their game.

Chris Rohling is a journalism major with a passion for storytelling in almost every medium.