Sunday, November 27, 2011

"J. Edgar" with Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts

J. Edgar Hoover was a uniquely American enigma. He was, at first, a ruthless fighter against Communism in the days of the Palmer Raids, which took place in 1919 under the direction of Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer and the Department of Justice. Those raids have long been ostracized as being illegal, but they really did save the nation in the early days of the 20th Century. The raids were mostly a reaction to labor related violence by the Unions. This was only 2 years after the Russian Revolution had ushered in Communism, and there was a real threat to America at the time. By September of 1920, explosions would rock Wall Street, when a wagonload of dynamite was set off at lunchtime, killing 38 and injuring scores. This was the environment in which J. Edgar Hoover "cut his teeth". It is also a small part of the history not made very clear to the audience in this film. Simply put, Mr. Eastwood has assumed too much of the average viewer.

The film is compelling, in that it keeps your attention. The direction of the actors is very well done, but the direction of the story; the screenplay; can leave the audience a bit confused as the story jumps back to the 1920's, and the Palmer Raids, and then jumps forward to the Nixon Era. Whole decades between the late 1930's and the 1960's are simply left out, or worse, merely alluded to, without any background information to help the younger viewer, as well as the uninformed, make sense of all the information imparted in the film.

Mr. Hoover's accomplishments in a forensic approach to solving crime cannot be understated. He set up the FBI's first fingerprint database, as well as introducing scientific methods to solving crimes. Ballistics, fibers, wood saw markings; all were carefully categorized under his tenure, and those accomplishments still yield results today. No matter what your politics may be, he was an innovative, though flawed, crime fighter.

Mr. Hoover is ably portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio as a conflicted man, both socially and morally. His relationship with Clyde Tolson, his assistant for almost his entire career, is not ignored, but neither is it explored for any indications that Mr. Hoover's famous "secret files" were largely due to a sense of "protectionism" of his own sexual preferences. This is a man who even had a file on Eleanor Roosevelt's dalliances with another woman, and informed the President of that fact. To his credit, that information was never made public during his tenure, but what about the files on Martin Luther King? Those he used to tempt Martin Luther King to kill himself on the eve of accepting the Nobel Peace prize. That episode is fully covered in the film.

The Kennedy years are virtually ignored, except for one scene showing J. Edgar calling Robert Kennedy to tell him the news of the assassination. Nothing further is said, or shown, concerning the FBI's complicity in covering up the events in Dallas.

J. Edgar's refusal to believe in organized crime, aka, the Mafia, is also overlooked here. How is it possible to have a film about the FBI without mentioning that it's director insisted, as late as 1964, that the Mafia, or any organized crime existed in America?

The film felt overly long, mostly due to the jumping forward and backward through almost 50 years of our nation's history in a hodge podge fashion. The film, in my opinion, would have been better served with a chronological approach to the story. Most viewers will find it helpful to read a bit about the man before they see the film. As it stands, the audience is left wondering if J. Edgar Hoover was a good man, or a bad man. The simple truth is, that just as we all are, he was a bit of both.

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