J. EDGAR Review
Director Clint Eastwood takes a break from his usual ruminations on physical death to look into a death of another kind: The long-brewing death of personal freedoms via the extent of government authority through law enforcement. Although some may be taken aback that the one-time Dirty Harry has now made a film about a man who secretly liked to put on dresses, the critical sociological and political themes of the darkly toned "J. Edgar" fall right in line with Eastwood's supposed Libertarian leanings.
Decades before anyone ever dreamt to be outraged by the Bush-era Patriot Act and all that surrounded it, America's "top cop" J. Edgar Hoover spearheaded that type of authoritarian control/crime-watch through the birth of the FBI (the Federal Bureau of Investigation), among other endeavors. Hoover's dedication to his work and love of country is matched only by his ego, his need for control, and his love of the spotlight. It is slowly yet heavily implied that this compulsion for control was born of his need to repress his homosexuality - a secret that the world not learn of until after his death in 1972.
Played by Leonardo DiCaprio, the film posits that mommy issues are at the core of all matters (not unlike DiCaprio's Howard Hughes in Scorsese's "The Aviator" - another overly powerful American of the twentieth century who attends hearings, and the actor doesn't actually resemble). Thanks to the cold, doting manipulations of society marm Annie Hoover (Judi Dench, doing her best Angela Lansbury), this version of her son in effect becomes a true-life Manchurian Candidate (without ever having to run for office).
Spanning the nearly fifty years of the title character's public service, "J. Edgar" embraces non-linear structure, juggling chronology as to feature DiCaprio as a brash young 1930s go-getter in one sequence, then as a hobbling curmudgeon the next. While the film is successful with this storytelling aspect (viewers can never grow as bored as they otherwise might, as they are perpetually reminded of where Hoover came from and where he'll end up), it's considerably less successful in terms of the much-ballyhooed old age make-up. Consistency is the key here, seeing how the old age make-up of DiCaprio, Naomi Watts (occupying the thankless role of Hoover's career secretary) and particularly Armie Hammer (as Hoover's long suffering lifelong companion Clyde Tolson) may look good seventy-five percent of the time; it's still that remaining twenty-five percent when they resemble putty-faced "Dick Tracy" villains that make all the difference.
The film's screenplay by up-and-comer Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for having written "Milk") scores points for the ambitious way it demands engagement through a bold and utter refusal to ever explain itself or offer easy historical context, (Don't know who Melvin Purvis is? Tough, you'd better remember before the scene is over. The narrative isn't going to fill you in.) but ultimately, it's trying too hard. It's not so much a complimentary assumption of the audiences' historical knowledge base as a showy and aloof info-dump. Think of it this way: If "J. Edgar" were a television, and each diverse aspect of the character's life were its own channel (there's the Early Career Channel, the Charles Lindberg Case Channel, the Gangster Epidemic Channel, the Secret Homosexual Channel, and so on and on), then Black and Eastwood are hogging the remote, jumping from one channel to the next, back and forth, letting us glimpse certain bits without beginning, others without end, before dashing on the next thing. It all goes by in an expensive flurry of high-end vintage men's clothing, CG parades, moody cinematography, Washington DC offices and horn-rimmed glasses.
Yes, J. Edgar Hoover was an important and complex man whom a level-headed cinematic treatment is long overdue (see numerous studio crime films of the 1930s through the 50s for Hollywood's former downright bizarre mega-reverence for the man), but even Eastwood's chronic directorial cool cannot shake "J. Edgar" of resentful self-importance. Despite the film's admirable qualities, it's simply impossible to look passed the awards baiting grandstanding of DiCaprio (a performance that settles in well enough, even if it never ceases to be a glorified impersonation) and Black.
In the end, blatant self-aggrandizing need for control and acclaim (on the part of the key talent that Eastwood has surrounded himself with) is what ironically keeps "J. Edgar" from greatness. In Eastwood, DiCaprio, and Black, we can see certain key aspects of Hoover himself (the respected, institutional statesman at the end of his career; the ambitious young man in need of admiration, and the fast-rising hotshot who will tell us all how it is). When the film works (and it does often enough, just narrowly) it is a sensation of watching a lean, towering, well dressed beast of multiple personalities from different ages succeed very much in spite of itself, stumbling ever so much. What clearly began with the best of intentions - getting at the complex truth for the greater good - ends up a semi-confused hunk of prestige by design. And so, "J. Edgar" resembles J. Edgar in more ways than it ever should want to - a lofty work that means well despite its own inner corruption, which eventually taints it.
- Jim Tudor