At first glance, “J. Edgar” has Oscar nomination written all over it. It’s a period biopic directed by Clint Eastwood and starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It looks just like the kind of film you would expect to hear mentioned a lot on Oscar night. While the movie does several things right, it ultimately falls victim to some flat direction and an unfocused script. The movie starts strong and the first half of the picture seems to have a good sense of direction despite it’s lack of any real emotion. But the film seems to lose it’s identity and in the second half we end up with a hodgepodge of disjointed historical and personal vignettes.
The story unfolds through numerous reflections from Hoover to his typist as he prepares his autobiography. We jump back in forth through time and get a look at everything from Hoover’s work with Mitchell Palmer to his rise to acting director of the Bureau of Investigation. We get small glimpses of the Palmer Raids, the Bureau’s war against the likes of John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the JFK assassination, and more. And even though we never stay long, the film is strongest when moving from one historical moment to the next, particularly in the first half of the film.
“J. Edgar” paints Hoover as the complex individual he really was. We see Edgar as a well-intentioned man who truly loves his country and believes in what he’s doing. But we also see him become a man more concerned with his legacy and with maintaining power regardless of the laws he may break. We see his contributions to forensic investigation but also his willingness to blackmail various presidents to get what he wants. He can be pitiful and sympathetic but at other times despicable and the movie does a good job conveying this to the audience.
While the first half of the picture had the look and feel of a well-crafted historical biopic, it felt dry and emotionless. The second half of the film tries to make up for that by spending more time looking at Hoover’s personal life. But this is where the movie loses it’s focus and ventures from fact into speculation. It was rumored that Hoover was a closet homosexual with strong feelings for his second in command Clyde Tolson. But the rumors were never proven. Eastwood stated that the film would address the relationship but leave it open for the audience’s interpretation. I think that approach would have worked much better. Instead, Eastwood’s picture leaves little for interpretation and the result is a cut and paste relationship that never feels genuine or natural. It does more to bog down the film than add to it.
DiCaprio gives a strong and committed performance that’s only held back by the occasionally clumsy script. He fleshes out his character’s insecurities, quirks, and unpleasantries without becoming a simple caricature. DiCaprio never loses his character even while playing him as young and old. It’s hard to take your eyes off of him even when he’s working through some occasionally stilted dialogue. While this isn’t my favorite work of his, it’s a well-rounded and controlled performance that could get some serious Oscar consideration. Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson starts off strong but ends up giving a rather uneven performance. Hammer is subtle and effective as the younger Tolson but doesn’t quite sell him in his later years. And unlike DiCaprio, Hammer just isn’t able to overcome the material when it stumbles.
Visually “J. Edgar” does a nice job capturing the different decades. Careful attention is given to wardrobes, furnishings, and automobiles. It’s hard not to be impressed with the look of the film and Tom Stern’s cinematography really draws out the detail. One big topic of discussion has been the makeup used to age Hoover and Tolson. DiCaprio’s makeup is a bit jarring at first but I quickly grew used to it. Hammer’s makeup never looked natural and at times was pretty distracting. There’s one scene outside in the sunlight where Hammer’s makeup was extremely pasty and looked more like a mummy that a human being. I was really taken back by how fake it looked.
“J. Edgar” could he been a classic picture. Instead it’s a good movie that never reaches it’s potential. It’s Dustin Lance Black’s script that leads to many of the film’s bigger problems. While it starts strong it eventually loses it’s cohesion and Black’s liberties in the second half of the film fall flat. But there are times where it really feels like an important picture and I did enjoy jumping back in time to see some of the bigger events in American history through Hoover’s eyes. “J. Edgar” is also worth seeing for DiCaprio’s solid performance. This isn’t a terrible film and it does manage to be entertaining despite it’s flaws. But at the end of the day I can’t help but be disappointed at what could have been a great picture.