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Carly at the Movies: J. Edgar

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Compared to the group of recent would-be Republican presidential candidates, the little monster depicted in Clint Eastwood’s new film, “J. Edgar,” could qualify as just another power-mad nutcase. But even though Eastwood low-balled the seedier aspects of the little guy’s life, you’ve got to give Hoover credit for collecting dirt and sweeping through Washington, D.C., with the force of the mother of all vacuum cleaners.

More than half of America’s movie critics jumped gleefully on Clint Eastwood, dealing the film that deadliest of all poisons, a Bad Review. (As if anyone paid any attention to movie critics.) True enough, the film has some problems. But it’s a fascinating character study as well as a history lesson for those of us who have forgotten the past and then learned it repeats itself like stale sauerkraut.

So first of all, let us be thankful that Eastwood handled this material. Can you imagine what it would have been in the hands of Oliver Stone?

The story covers some of the major incidents in Hoover’s life, starting with the Big Red Scare in 1919, and ends with his death in 1972. It’s essentially the parallel tale of the Bureau of Investigation (as it was first called), and had it been told in a linear fashion, I believe it would have been less confusing. As it stands, it hops around from incident to incident, from the Lindbergh Kidnapping to the Civil Rights movement, from the McCarthy Hearings to the shooting of John Dillinger.

In the title role, Leonardo DiCaprio is outstanding portraying a Freudian mess of a man, dedicated to his mommy (Judi Dench), his closest friend (Armie Hammer), and his intense – if often mistaken – sense of Patriotism. Along the way, he managed to organize the federal use of far-reaching methodology, implementing wiretapping, fingerprinting, and other modern forensic weapons.

His methods as well as his madness were often abused, and his “secret files” on those in power were greatly feared. And all along the way, his secretary (played wonderfully by reliable Naomi Watts) stood by him, and it is assumed that after his death, she destroyed the files and their contents proving (or implicating) moral malfeasance and dirty dealings amongst the great and powerful.

One problem the film has that is upsetting. During the flashbacks and flash-forwards, as we see Hoover’s close buddy Charles Colson on screen, his garish makeup and clumsy facial prosthetic remind one of a Kabuki dancer. He looks ghastly, and as he ages, the mask is unsettling. Underneath all that gobbledegook, I think Armie Hammer is doing a good job of acting. (We’ll see. Watch for him as “The Lone Ranger” in the 2013 release of that classic remake, with Johnny Depp as Tonto.)

Director Eastwood shows great restraint and refrains from editorial comment during Hoover’s low moments, leaving judgment up to the viewer. But there is little that can be positive about a man who tramples individual rights, driven by his ages-long fear of Communism and his own daemons.

While it is difficult to feel compassion for a man so overtly prejudiced (his hatred for Martin Luther King, Jr. is legendary) and so willing to play fast and loose with our Constitutional rights to gain his bizarre ends, one is torn between pity and shock.

Does the film have any relevance for today’s world? Are you kidding? Who watches the watchers, and who waters the elephants? The gods have stone feet, as do the clowns. It shouldn’t take that many more Republican Candidate Debates to illustrate that.

Carly at the Movies column by Carl Larsen

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