daniel cohen looks at Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the controversial FBI director …
Plot: The life and times of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), and how he revolutionized law enforcement and the FBI. But it’s his secrets that almost tarnished his reputation.
I don’t know what the point to this film was. Honestly, I could have just read a biography, or even Wikipedia for crying out loud, and gotten just as much out of it. I’m not saying this is a bad movie, but the whole point of a biopic is to not just rehash what the subject accomplished, but to focus on the actual person, and what obstacles they encountered. I didn’t get that at all in J. Edgar, despite a damn good performance from Leonardo DiCaprio.
DiCaprio is always great, and in this film, he’s no different. The problem is that DiCaprio’s best moments, the ones where he really breaks down, had no effect on me whatsoever, because the film is half haphazardly directed and severely under-written. I didn’t have an emotional connection to Hoover at all. The movie just feels like it’s going through a checklist. Okay, let’s make sure we show Hoover doing this, then we’ll have a scene where he arrests this guy … it’s just going through a laundry list of stuff Hoover did, none of which is shown in any kind of interesting manner. It’s just facts.
To the movie’s credit, it gets better in the second half. You start to finally get into who this guy is. They predictably play up Hoover’s more secretive idiosyncrasies, such as his sexuality, and his rumored cross-dressing. But honestly, they probably should have played it up even more.
When you look at some of the better biopics in recent memory, they play up the darker aspects, and that’s what gives them emotional resonance. The Aviator goes all out with Howard Hughes’ OCD condition. A Beautiful Mind goes all out with John Nash’s paranoid schizophrenia. Walk The Line goes all out with Johnny Cash’s drug addictions. J. Edgar doesn’t go all out with Hoover’s more elusive personality. While it plays a big part, they never really dive headfirst into it. Even when Hoover puts on drag, you never get one full shot of him wearing women’s clothing. It’s just kind of seen in the mirror in a fairly quick scene. I guess I can appreciate the more subtle approach to some extent, but these elements needed more of a punch.
I’m not saying biopics should just focus on the darker aspects of the individual, because the three films I mentioned before all showcase the great accomplishments that those men achieved, and they also do it in a far more interesting way than this film did. It’s missing that ‘Wow, this guy was brilliant’ moment. The accomplishments and eccentric characteristics are both half-assed in J. Edgar, and that’s really my gripe.
The most important relationship in the film is without a doubt between Hoover and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson, played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer. This relationship is totally under-written, but the two actors elevate the material significantly. Because of their great acting, I was intrigued by their professional relationship, which turns into a lot more as the movie goes on. Armie Hammer really impressed me, especially when he plays the older version of himself. And speaking of that, the old makeup is done very well on all accounts.
Unfortunately, DiCaprio and Hammer are the only great performances. There’s nothing else. All of the other characters are completely forgettable. Even Judi Dench, who plays Hoover’s mother, is horribly under-written. She has one memorable line, and that’s it. We are supposed to feel pressure from Hoover’s mom for him to be a great man, but I felt nothing for Hoover’s anxiety.
As ho-hum as the script was by Dustin Lance Black (who also wrote Milk), Clint Eastwood’s directing really fails this movie. The story is told non-linearly, alternating between old Hoover and young Hoover, but it didn’t really add anything. There’s no purpose to the way its put together, it’s just kind of jumbled. Even when the film begins, it feels off, almost like you walked in late as it dumps you right into the middle of a scene.
The movie is worth seeing because DiCaprio and Hammer both give Oscar-worthy performances, but they could have been so much more if the movie had more meat to it. It’s really all over the place, especially towards the end. They try to cram in a lot: What is Hoover’s legacy? How does Hoover view himself? It’s also got Lord Of The Rings: Return Of The King syndrome, where you think it’s going to end several times, but keeps going. The film was so clunky, that the end message was lost on me. And that’s what this movie is: a lost opportunity.
Rating: 6 out of 10 (‘meh’)