Published November 11, 2011
“J. Edgar” should have been Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece. Unfortunately, it isn’t.
Here is a biopic about the life of a man with enough material to make one of the most intriguing films ever made. Hoover founded the FBI, became one of the most influential people in the country, supposedly was a closeted homosexual, had mounds of dirt on politicians, presidents and their wives, and inspired a slew of James Cagney films and comic books.
All those ingredients should make up the juiciest film of the year, but "J. Edgar" is dull, dull, dull.
Biopics work best when the film focuses on one or two important moments of the subject’s life. (See “Capote.”) “J. Edgar” is an extremely unfocused film. Scenes jump from the Lindbergh baby tragedy to Nixon’s threat to the bureau to the civil rights movement to battling Bolsheviks. The script by Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") is stretched so thin so as to almost void the movie of substance. "J. Edgar" tries to be a film about relationships, but it never sits still long enough to be effective.
The film does have one thing going for it though: Leonardo DiCaprio’s commanding portrayal of Hoover. (You may see an Oscar nod for DiCaprio’s excellent performance.) Like he did with Howard Hughes in “The Aviator,” DiCaprio takes command of the subject and gives a whirlwind performance. His three core relationships throughout are the strongest parts of the film (when not interrupted by some hodgepodge historical moment). Hoover’s domineering mother (Judi Dench), his partnership with Clyde Tolson (an excellent performance by Armie Hammer) and his devout loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) give the film some much needed muscle.
Since the film jumps through time, we are constantly reminded of the aging characters by distracting makeup. The aging effects on Hammer’s Tolson are significantly better imagined than DiCaprio’s Hoover. The two-plus hours movie is also distractingly interrupted by Clint Eastwood’s original score. The production values, on the other hand, are top notch, and the changing timeline allows for some interesting period set design and costumes.