Bil’s rating (out of 5): BBBB. USA, 2011. Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Productions, Wintergreen Productions. Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black. Cinematography by Tom Stern. Produced by Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz. Music by Clint Eastwood. Production Design by James J. Murakami. Costume Design by Deborah Hopper. Film Editing by Joel Cox, Gary Roach. American Film Institute 2011. Golden Globe Awards 2011.
Director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black look to rehabilitate the reputation of one of the twentieth century’s shadiest political figures, J. Edgar Hoover. This reverent but never stodgy biopic has an aged Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio under some very impressive makeup) narrate the story of his career to a series of young agents, describing his early years in the Bureau of Investigation, when it was so undesirable a job that in his twenties he was easily made its head, through to his dragging the Bureau up to be the super federal power that it is. One of the key cases in making the reputation of all involved was the Lindbergh kidnapping case, the “crime of the century” that saw the beginning of the frustration between federal and state law in dealing with crime; it also saw the birth of a legend that Hoover created about his own life, and this film expertly navigates back and forth between the man and his own myths. At home, Hoover is domineered by a loving but iron-girded mother (Judi Dench), attended to by a lifelong loyal secretary (Naomi Watts doing well in a thankless role) and has at his side for decades his second in command and personal companion (Armie Hammer). Black wisely pits Hoover’s relentless desperation for power against the vulnerabilities of his personal life; the relationship between DiCaprio and Hammer is so monumentally tragic here because not only do they genuinely love each other, but to watch them interact is to watch two people who have no idea that they actually have the right to be happy together (and Hoover’s mother tells us exactly why). The richness of this personal relationship, and the achievement of the two men’s performances in portraying them, makes for a political biopic that is never dry or dull. DiCaprio is himself a revelation, giving what is so far his most layered and powerful performance (his scene in the mirror with his mother’s dress is the film’s most explosively powerful moment, and the best work of his career). Eastwood’s devotion to rich period detail presented in muted tones with gorgeously murky cinematography is even more effective than in Changeling.