Direction: Clint Eastwood
Actors: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts
It’s absorbing story-telling time. No living director can be as traditional and yet modern a raconteur as Clint Eastwood can. There is a solid plot here narrated with a technical fluidity which has become the signature of the 81-year-old auteur.
J. Edgar, the 32nd feature helmed by Eastwood, is an elegiac look-back at a dangerous era of American nationalism when any form of dissent was a sign of ‘subversive radicalism’.
Right from the increasingly intolerant 1920s to the 1970s, ‘communism’ was a dirty word, union strikes were crushed, and the practice of secret surveillance had begun.
Black leaders were regarded as dangerous. Farcical attempts were made to prevent Martin Luther King Jr from accepting his Nobel Peace Prize.
J Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio), the infamous leader of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, wielded more power than the several presidents he ‘served’. Blackmail was just one of the many tricks used by the FBI chief to strengthen his stranglehold over the White House Administration.
The intricately constructed screenplay — gliding between various time spans — focuses on Hoover’s publicity-seeking investigation of the kidnapping of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s ill-fated baby boy.
In the process, we watch Hoover’s emotional see-sawing relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and his loyal secretary (Watts) who had turned down his proposal of marriage. And then there’s the FBI chief’s right-hand man (Armie Hammer) with whom his same-gender attraction is kept ambiguous.
In fact, Hoover’s sexual orientation isn’t quite clear. When he talks about marrying the screen goddess Dorothy Lamour, is he being serious or is he making his aide jealous?
Clearly though, Eastwood makes Hoover out to be a power-drunk yet insecure man, whose nationalism verged on insanity.
A workaholic, he was on the job for 50-plus years. On being advised to take a few days off, he threatens to get the doctor sacked.
Technically, the film is a marvel, capturing the bygone ambience accurately. The cinematography (by Eastwood’s regular collaborator for over a decade, Tom Stern) costume and set designs and the background music score by the director himself, are excellent.
The editing towards the latter half could have been tighter. The prosthetics make-up effects are uneven.
On the acting front, DiCaprio does justice to a complex part. As his best buddy, Armie Hammer turns out to be a scene stealer. Judi Dench and Naomi Watts are bankably competent.
Here’s a biopic which also serves as a critique of the days of imperious autocracy in America. In recreating that draconian era, Clint Eastwood rocks again.