Friday, November 18, 2011

Opening Scenes: ‘J. Edgar’

By Chip Schrader

Staff Movie Critic

“J. Edgar” begins with an exterior shot of the FBI headquarters in downtown Washington, D.C. A man’s voice laments the “disease” of communism that plagues this country. After the shot of the building pans up showing its looming presence, the scene changes to a shot of Dillinger’s death mask and a confiscated machine gun. The voice continues to rant about radicals and their danger to society in an almost Nixon-esque manner. We finally see J. Edgar Hoover pacing in his office while narrating his life story just beyond the machine gun and death mask on display.

At first, it is difficult to match Leonardo DiCaprio’s nearly child-like voice with the elderly Hoover he is made up to portray. For the first scene or two, he isn’t believable. Once the film settles into Hoover’s recollections, and DiCaprio plays the younger Hoover, the seeds of believability are planted and begin to flourish. Scenes after this, DiCaprio fits the elderly Hoover as well as he does the young one.

Eventually, we are introduced to a young Helen Gandy, played by Naomi Watts, whom Hoover unsuccessfully courts as a mate, but successfully finds her to be a lifelong secretary and confidant. Watts transforms herself in this role to the point she is unrecognizable, but the most interesting, and possibly most important introduction in Hoover’s life was when he met Clyde Tolson. Skillfully portrayed by Armie Hammer, the depth of Tolson’s connection to Hoover was subtly portrayed, and as they grow together, there is a tenderness between these men that has never been seen before in cinema.

“J. Edgar” is among many of director Clint Eastwood’s fine films: “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil,” “Mystic River,” “Unforgiven” and “Bird” to name a few. The cinematography is haunting and hypnotic, two qualities that have been Clint Eastwood’s signature.

Drawing from a bright gray color scheme and heavy use of shadows, “J. Edgar” might have an evenly paced story line, but the intensity of the imagery is where some of the greatest drama is created. Hoover’s career spans Al Capone’s St. Valentine’s Massacre, the kidnapping of the Lindberg baby, and takes America through the turbulent Kennedy, Johnson and Nixon administrations.

With “J. Edgar” being one of the earlier Oscar contenders, it is hard to speculate how it will be recognized. The acting is excellent, particularly with the performance of Armie Hammer. The screenplay and cinematography deserve a nod, as does the direction. Watts and DiCaprio turn out excellent performances, but Watts’ performance represents a fuller transformation. The film’s slow pace and lack of edginess may cause it to be overlooked.

Bottom line, “J. Edgar” is a rock solid film by a director whose career is as distinguished as a director as Eastwood is an actor. Like with many biopics, the action is slow but the intrigue and unraveling of world history outside of the walls is gripping. While the quietness of the film might come off boring to casual filmgoers, those who love classic film noir and American history need to see this movie. It is finely crafted and deserves savoring. 4 out of 5.

Photo Caption: (Courtesy movie poster image)