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Deep-cover DiCaprio in J. Edgar, go west, old man in Blackthorn

by Mark Burger

J. Edgar is an honorable, if not entirely satisfying, attempt to delve into the life of arguably the most consistently powerful man in the United States for over 40 years and unarguably one of the most compelling political figures of the 20th century.

With Leonardo DiCaprio essaying the title role over a decades-long span that begins with him as a young agent for the Justice Department and then the first head (and essential founder) of the Bureau of Investigation, later more commonly known as the FBI, and Clint Eastwood at the helm, J. Edgar is certainly a harbinger of the ambitious, serious-minded moviemaking prevalent this time of year, when Academy Award considerations are mounting.

The story, which dictates a sweeping format, bounces back and forth through chronological history, using the framing device of having Hoover dictate his memoirs to a succession of

FBI agents (all young, handsome men). In skirting a more linear approach, however, the film never finds a consistent momentum and, as a result, lacks a cumulative impact. There are good bits along the way, and Eastwood brings his usual unobtrusive solidity to the direction, yet J. Edgar leaves one longing for more.

Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for Milk) strives to explore both the personal Hoover and the professional Hoover and how one impacted the other, but goes no further to explore how this affected the course of history. Hoover was a rabid anti-Communist, no friend to the Kennedys, and he mistrusted Martin Luther King Jr. to such an extent that he surreptitiously (and sometimes blatantly) attempted to discredit him.

None of this is particularly revelatory to anyone with even a cursory knowledge of Hoover or, in a broader sense, the political spectrum of the 1950s and ’60s. The film purports to be an intimate telling of Hoover’s life, yet he comes across as more remote and distant.

Hoover’s principal relationships in the film are with his loyal longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts); Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), the handsome young FBI agent who became Hoover’s right-hand man (no jokes, please) and constant companion; and Anna Marie Hoover (Judi Dench), his doting, domineering mother. Whatever the real Hoover’s sexual orientation, it’s common knowledge that he was devoted to his mother and she to him. And, for those wondering, in one scene Hoover does indeed don a dress, although the context is far from salacious or scandalous.

Given the subject matter, J. Edgar is consistently interesting — how could it not be? — and DiCaprio offers a sincere, hardworking performance that may not snare him the Academy Award that likely awaits him one of these years, but is nevertheless yet another strong portrayal from the actor. The inner turmoil and ambition that defined Hoover, at least according to this narrative, are clearly and palpably portrayed. Love him or hate him — and history shows that most people feared him (with good reason!) — DiCaprio’s Hoover is human.

Director Mateo Gil’s Blackthorn , which stars Sam Shepard in the title role, presupposes that the legendary outlaw Butch Cassidy didn’t die in Bolivia in 1908 and has been living in obscurity for the last few decades under the name James Blackthorn.

Upon learning that his estranged son’s mother has died, he decides to saddle up once more and pay the lad a visit. He soon encounters Eduardo

Apodaca (Eduardo Noriega), a young outlaw who convinces him to partake in one last score. Try as he might, Cassidy/ Blackthorn can’t quite leave his past behind him.

Along the way, Blackthorn reflects back on that past, conveyed in periodic flashbacks. These interludes aren’t bad, nor are the actors who play the young Butch, Sundance Kid and Etta Place — Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, Padraic Delaney and Dominique McElligott, respectively — but the film works best when Shepard’s in the forefront. He effortlessly commands the screen, and even does a little singing in the saddle, none too badly!

There are some neat twists in Miguel Barros’ screenplay and gorgeous cinematography by Juan Ruiz Anchia, as well as good supporting work from Noriega, who brings subtle shading to his role, and a delightfully quirky Stephen Rea as a displaced Irish lawman who’s been dogging Cassidy/Blackthorn’s trail for years, but it’s Shepard who breathes life into Blackthorn. The actor brings an ornery dignity to this lion in winter, and he’s right at home in the Western milieu. He first the genre, and it suits him as if to the manor born.

Blackthorn is scheduled for DVD and Blu-ray release Dec. 20 from Magnolia Home Entertainment.

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