Reviewed by Colin Jacobson (Febraury 20, 2012)
With Clint Eastwood behind the camera, Leonardo DiCaprio in front of the lens, and an important subject to discuss, 2011’s J. Edgar looked primed for big things – critically, at least. Though the film’s commercial possibilities seemed limited, it came across like the kind of movie that would earn much consideration at Oscar time.
However, J. Edgar ended up as a dud in all possible ways. With a US gross of $37 million, it made no dent at the box office, and reviews tended to be negative. Oscar totally snubbed the film as well, as it managed not a single nomination.
All the negativity kept me from a theatrical screening of the film, but I was curious to appraise it on Blu-ray. The story opens in the 1960s with elderly FBI head J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio). Interested in the preservation of his legacy, he tells his tale – and that of the growth/rise of the FBI – to Agent Smith (Ed Westwick).
This takes us back to 1919, where we see a young Hoover’s reaction to a Communist terrorist plot and how this sparks his interest in the development of better crime-investigation techniques. Hoover gets a promotion to take charge of the search for the Bolsheviks and he leaps at this, all while his mother (Judi Dench) manipulates him – and he also attempts to woo new secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). The romance flops, but Gandy becomes Hoover’s longtime personal secretary.
From there we follow Hoover’s life and career. We see him become Director of the Bureau of Investigation and his influence on crime-fighting from there. We trace his position of prominence through various major public topics like the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and in the public eye. We also see various personal subjects, with a particular focus on his relationship with close associate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Going into Edgar, I knew of the various criticisms aimed at it, and I found it hard not to agree with many. In particular, Eastwood’s choice to frame virtually the entire film in shadows seems perplexing. Perhaps this is a metaphor for the hidden nature of the public figure or something like that, but it doesn’t play like a logical visual choice. Instead, it feels like Clint forgot to pay the light bill; even daylight shots look like they’re in the middle of an eclipse. The darkness creates an unnecessary distraction that seems more likely to take the viewer out of the story.
In addition, many criticized the flick’s old age makeup, and that’s a largely justified complaint. Watts’ makeup actually looks pretty good, while DiCaprio’s is mediocre and Hammer’s is downright awful. Hammer looks like he’s been dipped in plastic, and the poor quality of the work acts as another reason to mentally disconnect from the tale; it’s just hard to take the 1960s scenes seriously when we have to look at such unconvincing makeup.
On the other hand, I’ve heard a lot of criticisms about the movie’s chronology, as many appear to think its frequent era changes become a distraction. I disagree, as I feel they flow fairly smoothly. The jumps from young Hoover to old prevent the flick from becoming a straight biographical documentation of events; they don’t always succeed, but they add some perspective on Hoover’s life and make the narrative more interesting.
Despite that, Edgar still tends to often feel like a basic “greatest hits” reel. It attempts to throw curveballs along the way – especially since we usually get Hoover’s self-serving side of the story and necessarily must question his veracity – but the tale still usually acts as a “this happened, and then this happened” depiction. That’s not a bad thing, per se, and the movie actually works best when it takes this standard approach. But it does make the flick feel conventional.
Which might be a good thing, for when Edgar threatens to break out of the usual mold, it goes downhill. The scenes with younger Hoover easily fare the best. We get the most interesting material in those, as we view his rise to power and early work with the Bureau, and we also find the best-realized writing. The 1960s sequences try too hard to be Deep ‘n’ Meaningful, as they feature Hoover’s look back at his life and legacy. While they attempt insight, they instead come across as meandering and borderline pointless. We’re better off with the basics of the younger Hoover.
The performances also work better when we stay farther in the past. That’s partly due to the makeup, but it’s also because DiCaprio just can’t pull off the older Hoover well. Even buried in the makeup, he still looks boyish, and he’s not especially believable. He doesn’t do much to alter the character to fit his age, so the older Hoover sequences feel artificial.
DiCaprio gives a stronger performance as the younger Hoover, though even those scenes have some age-related problems; 36 at the time of shooting, DiCaprio looked much too old for the 20-something version of Hoover.
But he does his best to pull off the character’s personality at that stage, and he does quite well. Even with the disconnect between DiCaprio’s 36-year-old face and Hoover’s younger age, the actor transmits a good feeling of youth and awkwardness. He’s at his best with the early twenties Hoover, in fact, but he still does nicely with the part as Edgar ages through his thirties; it’s only the elderly Hoover that flops.
As expected, Edgar generated some controversy when it dealt with Hoover’s alleged homosexuality. This doesn’t mean the flick takes much of a stand, though; it never makes a real judgment in either direction, though I’d say it really leans toward the “Hoover was gay” camp. It certainly paints Tolson as homosexual, and it uses that stance as an implication of Hoover’s attitudes.
This seems like a cop-out. Admittedly, the movie came with a no-win situation; no matter what position it took, it’d offend someone. That said, I think it ends up with the worst of all worlds, as its “maybe he was, maybe he wasn’t” appear more likely to annoy everyone. Perhaps it would’ve been better to ignore the issue altogether, but then Eastwood would’ve been accused of whitewashing, so that probably wouldn’t have worked, either.
Controversies aside, J. Edgar ends up as a watchable but lackluster movie. I do think it’s better than its negative reviews opine, but I can’t make a strong argument for it as a maligned classic. It’s an erratic but sporadically effective biography.