Movie Review: J. Edgar

By Ryan Mazie

November 10, 2011

When you said you were going to buy me a pony, I thought...

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Walking out of J. Edgar, it took longer than usual to process what I had just seen. Using a bait and switch tactic, J. Edgar is a film that will probably be brought down by people’s lofty expectations. Instead of being a dramatic, FBI-centric film history, we get a high-camp biopic that’s plotline turns into a “is he or isn’t he” gay guesser that is more Mommie Dearest than government serious.

The film’s ambitious scope is set up within the first minutes, having a 77-year-old J. Edgar Hoover dictate his memoirs. This forms the structure to the strangely formless film that never takes a definitive shape on the secretive FBI director. Jumping back and forth in time, the film begins with Hoover’s innovative start at formulating a fingerprint database back in the primitive crime-solving 1920s, at a time when bullets came before brains.

Director Clint Eastwood is used to idolizing men of violence, but his “eye for an eye” philosophy has seemed to wane within his last decade of work. He punches up the film’s excitement levels with periodic gangster busts that highlighted Hoover’s earlier career. By the time the FBI is formed, Hoover is strictly methodological (although not necessarily moral). Instead of following the gruff-and-tough Dirty Harry-like lead while investigating the famed Lindbergh baby case (a major plotline that runs throughout the film), J. Edgar rather hires a wood expert and other scientists to find the perp. While interesting, it is hardly cinematic.
While Eastwood’s previous time-spanning drama Changeling was segmented throughout the eras, each section had a strong, definitive feel. J. Edgar just lumps along with no stylistic sensibilities (besides a sharp costume wardrobe that is the film’s best chance at nabbing an Oscar).

Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black’s script is J. Edgar’s biggest hindrance, having some horrible dialogue, richly read to create a campy feel that would make John Waters smile. The gay plot arc questioning Hoover’s sexual orientation, overpowers most of the film. Although he kept tabs on everyone, there are conversely few records on Hoover himself, making his sexuality (which is still unconfirmed and never said blatantly, although Eastwood heavily leans in the gay direction) the only major personal detail left to work with. The perpetual bachelor’s constant paranoia over being exposed of anything and everything leaves him cold and uninviting, making him a character difficult to watch for over two hours.

The only three people we see get close to Hoover are his personal secretary Helen Gandy (a magnetic Naomi Watts), his inseparable number two man and rumored lover Clyde Tolson (a scene-stealing Armie Hammer), and Hoover’s mother (a scenery-chomping Judi Dench) whose intense relationship is a degree away from Norman Bates territory.


Judi Dench is one of the best parts in the film, although for the wrong reasons, as J. Edgar’s manipulative mother who exclaims in a vitriolic tangent that will surely be a YouTube highlight, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil as a son!”

Leonardo DiCaprio is a tour de force as J. Edgar, remarkably encapsulating him throughout the years. Instead of recasting the role of Hoover, Eastwood opted for make-up, making the transition of Hoover turning from a slightly asocial, healthy young man into a bitter, tight-lipped old curmudgeon more visible. Acting through a heavy amount of make-up and padding, DiCaprio will surely and deservedly receive some award nominations, although the weak film and fainter screenplay will surely sideswipe his chances at winning.

Armie Hammer, like in Social Network, is the unsung hero, as the entitled, but endearing (mainly since he is the only emotionally-connected figure in the film) Clyde Tolson. However, his freckled, plastic-y make-up makes him look more like a burn victim than an AARP cardholder. Still, Hammer overcomes his unfortunate cosmetic debacle with a performance that is acceptably quiet until erupting in a fit of rage in a particular scene after the halfway point that you forget DiCaprio is even in the room.

Magnetic like usual, Naomi Watts is once again given the short end of the stick. With the best of the worst senior citizen make-up by far, Watts is brilliant at acting aged, subtly changing her body posture and adding a quiver in her voice. But with her character going through long absences of screen time, whenever she makes a breakthrough in terms of reaching the audience, she is unfortunately quietly forgotten about.

Devoid of any serious exploration, J. Edgar is a cliff note history on the man who built the FBI, although you can’t help but feel that some scenes need fact checking given Hoover’s allure of mystery with a majority of scenes happening behind closed doors. Bleak looking for the most part and shot with a dark color palette, J. Edgar’s unintentional laughter keeps the film highly entertaining, although not for the reasons Eastwood surely intended. A case of a great film failing apart by shoddy execution, you wish that Eastwood and Black had been inspired by Hoover’s meticulous planning to make a tighter story that delves into the confidential files.

6 out of 10



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