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Originally published November 10, 2011 at 6:23 AM | Page modified November 10, 2011 at 6:23 AM

Scarecrow Video recommendations for 'J. Edgar'

Biopics have a tendency to run together; like romantic comedies, there are a few beats every one seems to hit. The troubled relationship with a parent, a secret addiction or sexual hangup, and usually a failed romance. When you're tied to history it can be difficult to wring a satisfying narrative out of a real person's story. But that doesn't stop Hollywood from cranking out a few new high-profile biographies every year, usually around Oscar season.

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Biopics have a tendency to run together; like romantic comedies, there are a few beats every one seems to hit. The troubled relationship with a parent, a secret addiction or sexual hangup, and usually a failed romance. When you're tied to history it can be difficult to wring a satisfying narrative out of a real person's story. But that doesn't stop Hollywood from cranking out a few new high-profile biographies every year, usually around Oscar season.

This week sees the release of Clint Eastwood's latest film, "J. Edgar," starring Leonardo DiCaprio, of course a biography of the notorious founder of the FBI. Rather than suggest other biopics, we thought we'd bring you some other films that dramatize (and in some cases heavily fictionalize) the history of the Bureau.

First there's 1959's "The FBI Story." Hoover himself had a hand in making this; he was granted approval over almost every aspect of the film's production. It stars Jimmy Stewart as a loyal FBI agent who, while delivering a lecture, recounts his career. The film depicts the Bureau's exploits against the Klan, organized crime, and even the occasional Nazi. Completely whitewashed due to Hoover's insistence that his agency be portrayed as eternally just and squeaky clean, much of the story is apocryphal, but this is nonetheless an entertaining crime picture.

Almost completely in the other direction, we have 1977's "The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," a sort of nasty tell-all version of Hoover's life. Written and directed by exploitation legend Larry Cohen, the film portrays Hoover as a media savvy liar, a bigot and misogynist, an extortionist and a power-mad control freak, all stemming from his supposed closeted homosexuality. In some ways this falls into the b-movie grindhouse category: most of what makes the film exciting is its hefty dose of innuendo and sleaze, and it's certainly not politically correct. But as a rundown of the worst of what history has lead us to believe about Hoover, it makes a bizarre counterpoint to Eastwood's film.

Last but not least there's the much more recent "Public Enemies." Ostensibly a biopic on notorious criminal John Dillinger (Johnny Depp), this film is more accurately an investigation of the socioeconomic conditions that both drove a criminal like Dillinger and allowed him to flourish as well as those that led to the creation of the FBI and the development of its tactics. Directed by the great Michael Mann, this is a really spectacular realization of a piece of American history, and the level of period detail is staggering (some locations were the same ones occupied by the real subjects themselves. Depp is even wearing Dillinger's suits). If you're expecting a straightforward cops and robbers film, this isn't quite it, but it is a marvelous examination of American mythmaking.

We'll be back next week!




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