CAPSULE: J. EDGAR is a bleak, grim, and even unpleasant biography of one of the most powerful and controversial American men of the 20th century, J. Edgar Hoover. Clint Eastwood produces and directs the film with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role. Unusual to Eastwood, the narrative becomes muddled and confused. Even the film noir lighting and the sepia tint just do not seem to work here. Worst of all the film does not really give a convincing and three-dimensional portrait of the life of Hoover. Rating: low +1 (-4 to +4) or 5/10
It has been suggested that Clint Eastwood's two most recent films, INVICTUS and HEREAFTER, have been distinctly less successful than his earlier efforts and that he probably needs a money-making film to restore his reputation. In spite of that he has produced and directed J. EDGAR, a somber and nearly humorless view of a somber and humorless man, J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the United States Federal Bureau of Investigation. This may not be the film his backers were hoping it would be.
When we first hear Hoover's voice, before we even see him, he is accusing the Southern Christian Leadership Conference of having Communist ties and ranting against Communism as being "a disease." And as bad as that sounds today, the real Hoover might not have minded and probably would have stood by those words.
The film begins with Hoover commissioning a biography of himself to be typed in his own office and which is to give the public his side of the story of his life. As the film proceeds, it jumps backward and forward in time, sometimes being hard to keep straight. More confusing is that the film also jumps into Hoover's fantasies. The story of Hoover's life, basically his remembrances, is told in frequent flashback starting with the terrorist bombing of Mitchell Palmer, a former head of the FBI whom Hoover much admired. He tells the story about how he came to power and of some of the major cases, particularly the Lindbergh kidnapping case. We are led to believe that this will be the story from Hoover's perspective, but it also shows him having a gay (a particularly inappropriate euphemism) relationship with his assistant and partner. The film has led us to believe that this is at least from Hoover's perspective and what he wants in his biography. But it is unlikely that Hoover would be admitting to being gay and an occasional transvestite, even if it were true.
Leonardo DiCaprio gives Eastwood a strong performance and as far as I can tell authentic to Hoover, but Hoover was so secretive that we will never know. Ironically DiCaprio on the screen may look as little like J. Edgar Hoover as he would without makeup. This is particularly true in the scenes with the older Hoover. Makeup effects of aging are bad on DiCaprio and are even more pasty on actor Armie Hammer (playing Clyde Tolson), who looks almost like he is wearing a mask. Dame Judi Dench is acceptable as Hoover's mother, strong in many ways that her son only pretended to be. But willful mother is not one of Dench's more interesting characterizations. Surprisingly, Naomi Watts is along as Hoover's private secretary. Her character is there for most of Hoover's career, but her main contribution to the film is to submit to aging makeup. Her loyal secretary character takes a long time to develop any conscience at all and by the time she does it seem just a perfunctory way of making her Hoover's voice of reason. Even uncomfortable with some of Hoover's tactics, she is loyal to Hoover to the end and actually beyond. It is nice to see Stephen Root along as a strange little expert in wood. Root is probably this generation's Peter Lorre. Christopher Shyer's Richard Nixon looks so little like the original that it is hard to pick up that is who he is supposed to be.
Eastwood has the colors muted and almost all the indoor shots are film in near darkness with heavy shadow. This gives the film a claustrophobic feel with characters half in darkness so that you cannot tell where they end and the background begins. Eastwood provides the original jazz score, but there are definitely sequences in which the jazz music feels out of place and from the wrong era. The film tries to make compelling a character who actually complains the country is being overrun by "degenerates and radicals," who wages a war against them, and who by his own standards should have considered himself both. This film is a disappointment and I rate J. EDGAR a low +1 on the -4 to +4 scale or 5/10.
Film Credits: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt1616195/
What others are saying: http://www.rottentomatoes.com/m/j_edgar/
Mark R. Leeper firstname.lastname@example.org Copyright 2011 Mark R. Leeper