J. Edgar


J. Edgar

Armie Hammer and Leonardo di Caprio get a look at the critics who complained about their make-up.

(2011) Biographical Drama (Warner Brothers) Leonardo di Caprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas, Ken Howard, Geoff Pierson, Dermot Mulroney, Zach Grenier, Denis O’Hare, Damon Herriman, Stephen Root, Lea Thompson, Christopher Shyer. Directed by Clint Eastwood

Like the subject of yesterday’s documentary review, J. Edgar Hoover is a polarizing figure. There are those who believe he was the nation’s greatest lawman, a tremendous organizer and meticulous planner who built the Federal Bureau of Investigation from a powerless joke to perhaps the most elite law enforcement group in the world.

However, there are many who look at him as more of a cautionary tale, proof that absolute power corrupts absolutely. His confidential files on many prominent Americans destroyed lives and created a climate of fear that lasted for half a century. Eastwood, a prominent Libertarian, takes on a figure who remains enigmatic more than thirty years after his death, one whose private life was a source of great speculation but of which little is truly known.

Hoover (di Caprio) is embroiled in a feud with Martin Luther King, whom he considers to be a dangerous subversive. He also finds that his legacy is being tarnished and he feels that it is time to remind America just what an important part he played in keeping the country safe, deciding to dictate his memoirs to a parade of agents over the course of several years.

Starting with the Palmer Raids in 1919 when as a lawyer for the Department of Justice, he instituted a task force of Bureau of Investigation agents who would arrest anarchists after a series of bombs (including one at the home of then-Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer (Pierson) who eventually appointed Hoover to his post).

Hoover’s bureau is at first toothless; not allowed by law to make arrests or carry firearms, they function mainly in an advisory capacity and aren’t taken too seriously in the law enforcement community. Hoover recruits men he feels will be above reproach both morally and professionally, including Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a young man that Hoover fancies. However, homosexuality is completely taboo back then and if Hoover has feelings for Tolson, he must hide them well.

Not only from the bureau but from his mother (Dench) who tells him she would rather have a dead son than a live daffodil, referring  to the nickname of a gay acquaintance of the family who killed himself after being outted. Hoover lives with his overbearing mother even though he is the chief of an important bureau in Washington.

Once prohibition begins, the age of the gangster commences. Hoover turns his attention from anarchists and communists to gangsters who are not only running around lawless (and escaping justice by crossing state lines) but have captured the popular imagination. Hoover demands and gets legislation that allows his FBI officers broader powers, including the power to make arrests and carry firearms. When Hoover is criticized for not having personally arrested anyone, he stages arrests to make it look like he was the agent in charge when in reality he was just showing up for the press cameras after the dangerous work was done.

The kidnapping of the son of Charles Lindbergh (Lucas) becomes a game changer. Hoover endures the ridicule of supercilious cops (Mulroney) and watches them bungle the investigation, refusing to use the modern investigative techniques that Hoover (to his credit) was instituting at the FBI. Of course, history records the fate of the Lindbergh baby but it was the FBI who arrested Bruno Hauptmann (Herriman) for the crime.

Eastwood makes clear that Hoover used the tragedy to further his own agenda, which in particular allowed the FBI to be in charge of a central repository of fingerprints . He also used it as publicity to establish the FBI as an organization to be admired; a series of comic books came out portraying Hoover as an action hero, taking down criminals himself (when in fact he did not).

It was about this time that Hoover began keeping private files on public figures, including Eleanor Roosevelt, which he used as potential sources of blackmail to get what he wanted but also to keep an eye on people he considered subversive. Those files would cover figures from politicians to Presidents, actors to musicians, writers to journalists and go well into the 1970s.

The movie deals with Hoover’s private life gingerly, including the rumors of cross-dressing and homosexuality, both of which are disputed to this day. Eastwood intimates that both were in the background but never really acted upon.

The movie is long (but then again it deals with a 50 year career in the public eye) and it drags a bit towards the end. Some critics have complained that Eastwood doesn’t give Hoover an excoriation for his abuses of power (which I think was unnecessary – there have been plenty of calling to accounts for Hoover to render another one unnecessary) and that the old age make-up used by Hammer and di Caprio were distracting (which I found untrue).

After a subpar effort with Hereafter Eastwood returns to form with a potential Oscar contender. Di Caprio delivers a powerful performance that has to be considered an early entry into the Best Actor race. He makes Hoover relatable and human in some ways, while enigmatic and unapproachable in others. He never demystifies Hoover but never makes him a demagogue either. He is a man with an agenda, one which mostly involved cementing his own power, authority and position. He was also a man who yearned for acceptance and admiration.

Hammer, who played the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, is the glue that holds the movie together. He is the conscience of the king in many ways, and his Clyde witnesses some egregious violations of civil liberties and common decency but he is above all else loyal both to the bureau but more to the man.  It is at times heartbreaking to watch.

Less has been said about Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s executive assistant and in most ways the keeper of his secrets. She was a formidable woman in her own right and according to the movie anyway, rejected a proposal of marriage from Hoover. Watts gives her that inner strength as well as making her easy on the eyes. It’s a very strong performance that may well get some Oscar consideration of its own, although I’m less sure of that it will personally.

Is this the definitive film biography of the former FBI director? It certainly is for now but I’m not 100% sure that there isn’t a better movie on his life out there to be made. For my money, this is a very good movie that works not only as a biography but a look at the trappings of power and how seductive they can be. It truly is a cautionary tale and one which I sadly suspect we haven’t learned from as a species yet.

REASONS TO GO: Oscar-caliber performances from di Caprio and Hammer. A return to form for Eastwood.

REASONS TO STAY: The bouncing around of timelines sometimes gets confusing.

FAMILY VALUES: There is some foul language here and there and some sexual themes.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Armie Hammer’s great-grandfather was oil tycoon Armand Hammer who was suspected by Hoover of having communist ties; Hoover was said to have had a confidential file on him.

HOME OR THEATER: This would probably look just as good at home as it would in the multiplex.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Creation (2009)

Burma VJ


Burma VJ

A courageous videographer documents events from the Saffron Revolution.

(Oscilloscope Laboratories) “Joshua,” Aung San Suu Kyi. Directed by Anders Ostergaard

We take freedom for granted in a big way. While we can take the news we watch with a grain of salt, at least the government doesn’t completely censor any criticism of it with an iron fist. Our reporters don’t get thrown in jail and tortured for reporting the news.

That sounds far-fetched and yet it does happen in Burma, regularly. The country also known as Myanmar has been ruled by a military junta as repressive and cruel as any in the world today. Internet use is severely restricted and information flows at a sluggish pace. The news in and out of the country is limited; few in the West are truly aware of what takes place in Burma. In fact, many people in Burma itself are unaware of what’s going on in their own country.

However, there are a group of Burmese citizens, armed with small video cameras that are determined to make sure that the news of what’s happening in their country is documented and sent out for the world to see, including their own country. They are called the Democratic Voice of Burma.

The organization is headquartered in Oslo; the images and videos are smuggled out to them, and the news is then beamed by satellite into Burma and throughout the world. Those who carry the cameras risk terrible reprisals to themselves and their families if they are caught.

Few of them, such as “Joshua,” a young 27-year-old man who acts as our proxy in the DVB, have known anything but oppression and fear other than for a few weeks when there have been occasional uprisings. The junta, in place since 1962, has dealt with every challenge to its authority with absolute and merciless violence and arrests.

In August of 2007, the leaders of Burma added an arbitrary fuel tax that doubled the prices of gasoline and other fuels . This became intolerable to the average Burmese citizen and protests began to break out in the capital of Rangoon. At first, the government dealt with these the way they always did – by arresting those who would raise their voices against them. However, the people had reached a breaking point and thousands upon thousands took up the call.

Crucially, they were supported by the Buddhist monks of their country, perhaps the only other group within Burma that could take on the cruel military dictatorship. The powers that be in Burma allowed the Buddhists to protest, even allowing them to meet with Aung Sang Suu Kyi, a leader of the 1988 revolution who had been under house arrest since then and a woman revered by the Burmese people.

However, as it became apparent that the protests were growing in scope, the government began to do the unthinkable – a crackdown against the religious leaders of their nation. Hundreds of monks were arrested and many disappeared. Soldiers fired into crowds of protesters and killed hundreds, maybe thousands of peaceful protesters. The world would never have known if it weren’t for the images smuggled out by the DVB.

Director Ostergaard put together the footage, much of it never seen before, into a very compelling story that illustrates the incredible bravery not only of the protesters but of the videographers themselves. One gets a sense of the pervasive fear that dominates Burmese society, and the yearning for something better than what they all have.

This is a dictatorship that has stood for almost half a century and it doesn’t appear that it will be going away anytime soon. Watching this documentary makes you appreciate your own freedom and pray for the day when the people of Burma can enjoy their own. Perhaps we will see that day in our own lifetime; I sincerely hope so. Perhaps documentaries like this one will be the first step in that direction.

WHY RENT THIS: A depiction of bravery on a massive scale from a part of the world that is rarely depicted.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: If you don’t like powerful documentaries that teach you something about injustice in other parts of the world, you should go ahead and watch the next installment in the Twilight series.

FAMILY VALUES: Although the film is unrated, some of the themes are rather adult and there are some scenes in which there is violence; teens who are interested in the region will find this suitable.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Several videographers depicted in the film have since been arrested and jailed.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: Crossing Midnight, a short document about Dr. Cynthia Maung who fled to Thailand in 1988 and founded the Mao Tae clinic along with several other medical personnel.

FINAL RATING: 8/10

TOMORROW: Crazy Love