J. Edgar (Warner Bros. Pictures, R)

jedgar smWhile J. Edgar isn’t an outright bad film, it does feel pretty distinctly like a missed opportunity.

 

 

 

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Am I the only one who keeps mistaking the new Clint Eastwood movie, J. Edgar, for a Martin Scorsese film? I think it’s because it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, who has been hard to pry away from Scorsese for the past 10 years. Honestly, I probably would have liked J. Edgar better if it had been directed by Scorsese; Eastwood’s directorial efforts almost always leave me cold, and J. Edgar was no exception.

That said, I feel like what the film is trying to do is admirable; it’s just that it doesn’t really succeed. Working from a script by Dustin Lance Black (an Oscar winner for his Milk screenplay), Eastwood tries to show the good things J. Edgar Hoover achieved and the bad things in equal measure, without ever really getting too in depth on either side. Instead, he focuses the majority of the movie simply on the character of J. Edgar Hoover: what made him the way he is or, if you will, what his secret file on himself would have said. It’s an interesting approach to a vital historical figure who was responsible for some truly atrocious acts (his targeting Martin Luther King, Jr., as a threat is given a gloss here), but also did a lot of good things as well—or at least he did if you buy into his own mythmaking.

Still, the picture has a reek of showboating to it. It isn’t that I think DiCaprio is bad as Hoover (in fact, he’s better than I thought he would be, and I usually like DiCaprio as an actor), but he really lets the seams show. It always feels like DiCaprio is DiCaprio acting, and not that he truly is inhabiting the character of Hoover. Part of this is surely the old-man makeup he wears for much of the film and the gruff affectation in his voice trying to mimic Hoover’s growl. Worse is Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s life partner (for lack of a better term), who is mostly fine in a role that doesn’t seem too far off of his Winklevoss twins in The Social Network. But when Tolson has a stroke, Hammer starts acting all over the place in a way that just seems really unnatural. Again, perhaps a lot of this is the makeup. While DiCaprio’s usually looks pretty good, at least, Hammer’s aged makeup looks awful, like he’s wearing a creepy rubber mask. In fact, the first thing I thought of when I saw him as the older Tolson was that he looked a lot like Johnny Knoxville’s Irving Zisner character in the Jackass movies. I dismissed this thought more or less immediately on account of the fact that I’m maybe a little too much of a fan of those films, but was amazed to find in the lobby of the theater after the screening that other critics thought the exact same thing (and mentioned it before I did, even).

Hoover has three key relationships that are the backbone of this movie, given that it doesn’t focus on the major historical events of Hoover’s career as much as one might expect. Those three relationships are with the aforementioned Tolson, Hoover’s lifelong secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, who is the least hammy of the major actors in this movie), and his mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived until she died. Not a ton of time is given over to Gandy or Mrs. Hoover; the bulk of the movie’s runtime is devoted to Hoover and Tolson and their relationship that, as depicted in the movie, danced very carefully around the edges of homosexuality. It’s a fine balance that Eastwood doesn’t really pull off. For most of the first half of the movie, the film sort of titters about the possibility, but it gradually starts to take it pretty seriously. It’s a shame that the subtlety brought by Black to his Milk screenplay wasn’t recreated here—but then, Harvey Milk was always forthcoming about his sexual orientation and Hoover took it from a much more complicated angle. After all, no one seems to have definitive “proof” (whatever that would be) that Hoover was gay, but lots of evidence pointed to the fact. For all we know, he was completely asexual, but the film never finds a proper balance in depicting this.

So while J. Edgar isn’t an outright bad film, it does feel pretty distinctly like a missed opportunity. I have trouble imagining much of its audience is really going to like it all that much, as it never really fleshes out any one thing about J. Edgar Hoover as much as it seems like it would. It would have been easier to make a film that focused more on Hoover’s career and less on his personal life, and that film would have probably pleased more people. Had this approach to his story been pulled off a little better, the movie could have been great, but as it stands, it’s ultimately just a failure with a lot of missed potential. | Pete Timmermann


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