As endlessly fascinating as it is frustratingly flawed, J. Edgar is Clint Eastwood's latest left-turn and, probably, the best and most interesting of the oddly haughty prestige projects he has increasingly taken on as a director (Changeling, Invictus, Hereafter). An empathetic look at FBI mastermind J. Edgar Hoover, painted as a megalomaniac control freak who presciently foresaw information as power and a workaholic who sublimated his lack of social skills through his devotion to an unyielding self-propagandistic facade, J. Edgar is the sort of biopic that could not have been made when Hollywood routinely did this sort of thing. And yet, its sheer existence in this day and age, especially filmed with such exquisite, hushed classicism by Mr. Eastwood, is an unusual throwback to that earlier age of filmmaking. Piling irony upon irony is the fact the free-flowing structure of Dustin Lance Black's screenplay flits between Hoover's past and a 1960s/1970s present, showing us some of the key events in his life and career through his own, less than reliable eyes, in a non-linear structure that wouldn't have been tolerated in that age.

     Much has been made of the discreet intimations of homosexuality between Hoover and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson that were often suggested during his lifetime, but never confirmed, that Mr. Black wrote into the script, but neither he nor Mr. Eastwood are interested in sexualising the characters or in exploiting cheap sensationalism. They much prefer to flesh out a mystery that has remained so over Hoover's long life, someone whose devotion to job and country certainly hid deeper feelings and needs that have never been properly considered and remain tantalizing. It's a smart take, much helped by Leonardo di Caprio's subdued performance, his best since the underrated Blood Diamond and one where the actor all but disappears inside the character in a way he's seldom been able to do. The problem with J. Edgar lies elsewhere: in the sense that Mr. Eastwood's leisurely, economic style may be too laid back and stilted for the twisting, modern energy of Mr. Black's script. And yet, that may very well be part and parcel of the film's awkward, angular fascination: what better way to tell a story about someone who kept hanging on to a world long gone and marched to his own beat than by reinforcing that disconnect between past and present, modern and old-fashioned?

Leonardo di Caprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas.
     Director, Clint Eastwood; screenplay, Dustin Lance Black; cinematography, Tom Stern (colour and prints by Technicolor, Panavision widescreen); music, Mr. Eastwood; production designer, James J. Murakami; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; producers, Mr. Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz (Warner Bros. Pictures, Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso Company), USA, 2011, 137 minutes.
     Screened: distributor advance press screening, Columbia Tristar Warner screening room (Lisbon), January 18th 2012. 


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