J. Edgar (2011)
November 11, 2011
written by: Dustin Lance Black
produced by: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer & Robert Lorenz
directed by: Clint Eastwood
rating: R (for brief strong language )
runtime: 137 min.
U.S. release date: November 9, 2011 (limited) & November 11, 2011 (wide)
After watching the trailer for Clint Eastwood’s latest film, “J. Edgar”, I unfortunately found myself uninterested and unimpressed with what appeared to be yet another biopic lining up for an Oscar. It seemed like both director and star, Leonardo DiCaprio, were covering familiar ground. Eastwood knows period pieces so well he can film them with his eyes closed (or at least through an institutional grey lens), and DiCaprio has played more than one eccentric true-life character before (only this time we have distractingly bad aging makeup). It felt like two great talents coming together to do what they do well – so why was I not enthused by what I saw?
I find myself asking the same question after seeing the film. It’s not awful by any means, but considering the talent involved, it should’ve been great. Instead of doing something different, Eastwood employs his usual economic, low-key professionalism that we’ve come to expect from the 81 year-old icon. DiCaprio is fine here, indulging in a little overacting at times and reminding us that he played Howard Hughes back in 2004. Both of them seem to think that an Oscar nominee in a fat suit and four hours worth of makeup will hook their audience. Not quite.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar-winner for “Milk”) shoehorns almost fifty years of historic footnotes by having a septuagenarian J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, oddly resembling Jon Voight) dictate his memoir. to a young agent. This allows him to paint a romanticized portrait of his younger self, as he defends his nation from radicals and Communists that would threaten liberty, in an attempt to tell the origin of the FBI. Edgar, as his doting mother (a one-note Judi Dench) and friends called him, shrewdly climbs his way up to the top in Washington, until he is given the title of Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
Despite being somewhat of a charmer, Young Hoover has zero social life, which results in him unintentionally surrounding himself with only two friends. He finds a kindred spirit in Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, sort of wasted here) – that is after she declines his marriage proposal on their first date – whose work as a government secretary is as much a priority as Edgar’s career. He immediately hires her as his own secretary. As he recruits agents, he fancies tall and handsome Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network”), and hand picks him to be his Associate Director. Tolson is another kindred spirit for Hoover, in that he’s not into sports, appreciates fine clothing, and has no interest whatsoever in pursuing women.
As the agency is developing, Hoover implements such groundbreaking approaches as fingerprinting and forensic science, in order to investigate cases, especially that of the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindberg’s (Josh Lucas) baby boy. This investigation, deemed the “Crime of the Century”, is one of the more interesting aspects of the film. It would’ve been nice to focus just on this moment in Hoover’s career, instead Black has to cram everything into his script. Then again, the film could’ve resembled Eastwood’s “Changeling” a bit much, then.
Through these years, Hoover’s power builds, as his insecurity and unforgiving hardness can be felt by all those around him. Inflating his reputation with the media while flaming the flames of paranoia across the nation, Hoover creates and covets files on practically everyone in a powerful position at the time, with blackmail material that could threaten Robert Kennedy, Eleanor Roosevelt, and Martin Luther King, Jr. Eastwood injects the right amount of awkwardness for viewers in these scenes, like when we see Hoover alone in his office listening to the King sex tapes just as he’s told that JFK was assassinated. It’s awkward and unsettling, but not uncharacteristic of how Hoover is portrayed here.
I guess the problem is that we never really know who Hoover is because this memoir is what he wants us to know about him – or is it? In their elder years, living together like two Golden Boys, a debilitated Tolson confronts Hoover on his exaggerating life recollections for his memoir. It’s an important moment for both men, one that may even apply to Black. To tell a story about a pivotal character in American history, it helps to learn what was going on in that person’s head. Because of this storytelling approach, we never really do. This may be how Hoover was, but it doesn’t make for a very compelling characterization, it just explains things here and there.
Is DiCaprio great in this? I’m sure to some he is, but I felt he was so bogged down by autobio clichés that it was a challenge to truly appreciate his work. Even though I somewhat got used to it due to the performances, that awful aging makeup (I hate to harp on it, but it’s unavoidable) really took me out of the picture. This is especially the case when we see the elder Tolson, with what basically looks like a prune face mask leftover from Halloween. It just doesn’t work, which is a disservice to Hammer’s great nuanced work here. His work as Tolson stands out and was much more memorable to me than DiCaprio’s portrayal.
Still, if DiCaprio wins an Oscar for this role, it will be like the time Jack Nicholson won for “As Good As It Gets”, where we saw another good performance, but not as good as others by the actor. Such is the case here with DiCaprio, with his accent, behavioral tics and socially inept ways, on top of his denied homosexuality in an asexual relationship – these are all prerequisites for winning the little gold man. That’s what dressing up in your dead mother’s gown and pearls – a la Norman Bates – will get you, I guess.
By now, Eastwood has the same crew and studio that he’s worked with for years. They are an efficient and talented team (despite the director’s insistent piano noodling for his scores), providing expert cinematography, editing, and art design, but rarely ever offering anything new or different. No one is going to stop Eastwood from making films, nor would I want that to happen, but I would like to see something great; primarily because I’ve seen it from him before.