Posted by Buster the Administrator
by Steve Habrat
With Oscar season comes the unavoidable biography picture, one that zooms in on a controversial figure in history, a figure that is loathed by many and loved by few or vice versa. This year, just less than two weeks in and we have Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, which plops Oscar season veteran Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role as the ornery innovator/director of the F.B.I. The film boasts an all-star cast of A-list actors and actresses in the forms of Judi Dench, The Social Network’s Armie Hammer, and Naomi Watts, all firing on all cylinders and producing performances that match their A-list status. Sounds promising, right? Sadly, J. Edgar is a inconsistent, spotty, and finicky portrait, a film that is inebriated with facade and reckless with its emaciated narrative. Nothing really drives this film, slowly revealing that it has nothing to move it and worse, it instructs the viewer on how they should feel about a man who rose to be one of the most powerful individuals in American history. There is nothing that remains open-ended, nothing that allows me to form my own opinion on J. Edgar Hoover. An icon like Eastwood, who sits behind the camera here, should really know better.
J. Edgar is a film more interested with trivia, minuscule factoids about a multifarious man who was a mama’s boy, closeted homosexual, scheming brute, and devious manipulator. Hoover would stop at nothing to dig up dirt on everyone around him, leaving him with more skeptical enemies than close pals. The film begins with Hoover’s twilight years, all saggy cheeks, furrowed brow, and DiCaprio in the best looking elderly make-up the film has to offer. The reflective innovator is dictating his memoirs in the final years of his life, recalling his early years, awkward dates that lead to alliances, his formation of the Bureau of Investigation, his interactions with his loving mother Annie (Played by Judi Dench), his battle to create the finger print system, his first big case that involves a kidnapping, and more. The film also tracks the hiring of his loyal secretary, Helen Gandy (Played by Naomi Watts), and his number two man Clyde Tolson (Played by Armie Hammer), both who remained by his side until the end.
For a project that was whispered about for the past several years and the hype that built during the making of it, you would have thought that someone that was a part of the crew would have realized that the film lacks structure. It jumps all over the place, painfully lacking a driving storyline. It’s practically overflowing with moments rather than arching story. It feels as though Eastwood crammed as much as he could to the point where J. Edgar feels like it is about to burst at the seams. There is some fat that could have been trimmed from this bird, which also could have made the murky story a little less vague. I applaud screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s sharp dialogue and piercingly emotional personal moments, but when it shifts over to the technicalities, it stalls out violently, leaving the viewer squinting at the screen and asking, “What is going on?” or worse, “Who is this character?”. It has a burning desire to be an epic character study but falls victim to being too all over the board. It needed to narrow down its focus.
The other element working against J. Edgar is the enigmatic lighting scheme it has, which casts every single scene in heavy shadows to the point where it is impossible to catch a glimpse of an emotional reaction from the characters. At first I figured it was meant as an ode to the old film noir pictures and cast an old school ambiance over the film, but it is so frustratingly distracting that it pulls us out of Hoover’s stories. It was hell on my eyes. Why Eastwood settled on this specific choice I will never know. The make-up department also worked hard to make sure J. Edgar was a dud, placing Hammer’s Mr. Tolson in what appears to be the elderly man mask worn by Johnny Knoxville in Jackass. I can’t fathom why his make-up was approved, as it too is distractingly poor. An audience member in my showing actually exclaimed “IT LOOKS SO FAKE!” I couldn’t agree with you more Miss. Moviegoer. The rest of the art direction is superb, gloriously meticulous when it comes to detail, which makes me angry that the lighting was so awful and the make-up so artificial. Mr. Tolson looks like someone who aged badly after one too many plastic surgeries.
The acting carries J. Edgar over the finish line, giving it some Oscar potential in the acting department (We know it will be laughed at in the make-up department). This film captures DiCaprio at his absolute finest. He completely disappears into Hoover, regurgitating a miserable coot that trusts no one. He is a delusional grump who takes his anger and frustration out on those around him. If he is embarrassed by his agents in any way or shown any disrespect, he punishes by termination of their job. The only affection he shows is for his mother. Watts does a good job with the bit part she has here. She mostly fills the background but it’s always nice to see her. Hammer’s Mr. Tolson is a fascinating chap, one who loyally trails Hoover with wide-eyed wonder, always offering up his own approval of whatever Hoover does. I found myself rooting for him in the romance department, but ultimately Hoover shoots him down. It’s implied that Hoover was disgusted with his own homosexuality. I will give Hammer credit for forcing out some loving support for Hoover, even if he is hidden behind some of the worst make-up work I have seen in a major motion picture. Eastwood, Hammer deserved better than that!
My major beef with J. Edgar is it never let me sculpt my own judgment on the grimacing Hoover. He was a man set to destroy but without a real target. It’s well known he was a glum individual and Eastwood rubs our faces in it as if we were ignorant to this fact. You are practically forced at gunpoint to dislike him. Most of the time, Hoover is plotting who he is going to ruin next, be it Martin Luther King, Jr. or John F. Kennedy. The film does however let you form your own opinion on why he was miserable. Hoover himself suggests that it is because none of the men beneath him look up to him. Hoover was always looking down on them, brandishing his power right in there face. They probably didn’t dare look up because they would have their career destroyed. There is the slight implication that he wanted to be viewed as a superhero, one who was always swooping in and getting the bad guy. The invisible theory thread throughout J. Edgar is that he was living too many lies, which is the theory I side with in this debate. He would never admit that he could sometimes be a fraud, both in the admitting of his sexuality or his cowardly tendencies. He wore a mask of overconfidence. At least his mask was more convincing than any given mask in J. Edgar.