DIR: Clint Eastwood • WRI: Dustin Lance Black • PRO: Clint Eastwood, Brian Grazer, Ron Howard, Robert Lorenz • DOP: Tom Stern • ED: Joel Cox, Gary Roach • DES: James J. Murakami • Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Josh Hamilton
In historical films, relevancy in the modern age is a way of making it connect with the audience. A film has to tie itself today or else be a story that is timeless. It would have to feature elements that are identifiable by everyone. With J. Edgar, the film feels something closer to opportunistic. In other words, nobody had a made a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover and it was a chance to do it. The film doesn’t feel any relevant in shape or form, leaving the viewer watching a history documentary.
J. Edgar follows the birth of the FBI and its role in several high-profile cases, ranging from the Palmer Raids, the Lindbergh Baby, the Public Enemy era to the bugging of Martin Luther King. The film is a rundown of Hoover’s involvement in these cases, how he built the FBI and spearheaded criminal science. Parallel to this, it follows his personal life, from his overbearing mother (Judi Dench) to his chaste & life-long relationship with ClydeTolson (Armie Hammer). The film doesn’t reveal anything that hasn’t been discovered in the past, there is no new information or new speculation on Hoover’s life and work. As well, the film doesn’t seem to come down on one particular side regarding Hoover. At one moment, it seems to lionise and venerate his uncompromising quest to make the FBI the greatest investigative force in America – the next, it’s admonishing his brutal tactics and dubious claims about his prowess as a lawman. This, of course, is because his life was such that there were good and bad points – and that’s all fine. J. Edgar simply feels like a history lesson. It doesn’t speculate on anything in particular, simply relaying facts one after the other with Eastwood’s deft precision.
Leonard DiCaprio excels in his role as J. Edgar Hoover. It’s always so heartening to see how he disappears into the role, physically reshaping himself to portray how stunted and repressed Hoover was, his machine-gun style of speaking and his bullet-speed walk. Even down to how he wore his watch or put on his glasses, he demonstrates a real willingness to give himself completely to the role. As well, the makeup to portray Hoover is in his later life is subtle enough so that he doesn’t disappear underneath it all. The same can’t be said forArmie Hammer. While he portrays the overtly homosexual Clyde Tolson well and does justice in portraying how a man could tie himself to another without the hope of consummation, the makeup that’s used to show his age in later years is so terrible as to be distracting. It’s strange because with DiCaprio and with Naomi Watts, who plays Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy, the makeup is rather subtle and doesn’t necessarily detract from their performance. But with Armie Hammer’s, the results are so distracting, he’s basically a non-entity in the later parts of the film.
Clint Eastwood, who is 81 this year, delivers the quality that you’d expect from someone of his stature and career. His inclination towards dimly-lit, noirish landscapes works for him as the film is primarily set in that age, likewise his skills as a jazz pianist work for him in scoring the film. The problems lie in pacing. There’s nothing wrong with directors slowing down a film in order to develop characters or give focus to a particular scene. With J. Edgar, the pace is so slow that it’s tedious. And naturally, when that happens, you start to focus on other areas that the film falters and then, naturally, the thing unravels. Dustin Lance Black‘s script is reserved, taking great pains to strike a balance between his achievements and his failings and in doing so, becomes grey and lukewarm. The film has the benefit of hindsight – while it wishes to show a complete and full account of the facts, the fact it’s bereft of an opinion on him means that it comes across as somewhat insincere. The film and story itself feels like it should have been done already. J.Edgar Hoover has been portrayed in several great films, such as Nixon and Public Enemies. With this in mind, it feels the story has been covered already.
Therefore, one would think that if a film is going to be made on the topic, it should either shed new light or portray it from another perspective. With J. Edgar, the whole film feels like a historical document, not a film with a story to tell. As mentioned earlier, the film feels opportunistic; like there was a gap and that this could be made. It doesn’t feel necessary, like the film should have been done already. The film is impressive in some aspects, but they aren’t to keep the film from being relatively mediocre.
Rated 12A (see IFCO website for details)
J. Edgar is released on 20th January 2012