Even though the trailer was rather uninteresting, I was looking forward to J. Edgar. Eastwood has been more consistently great as of late (exception of Hereafter) and a great actor in Leonardo DiCaprio. I only glanced over a few of the reviews coming out which expressed a general disappointment. It seemed the story wasn’t as big or epic as fitting one of the most powerful men in the US. But even if the movie wasn’t great, I was expecting the movie to be a good and entertaining movie.
I certainly didn’t expect the movie to be such a boring slog. My main flaw is that, despite an earnest effort by DiCaprio, there isn’t much we are given to the character of J. Edgar Hoover. Despite being in just about every scene, I never really found him interesting or compelling. This is due to a few problems with the story and the framing of the character. For one, Hoover is always a guarded person. Roger Ebert, in his review, lists that as a big positive for the movie. Ebert thinks Eastwood is looking at a person who is essentially an actor, playing the J. Edgar tough G-Man role in both his public and private life. A man who is dedicated to his role as it were. While that may be an interesting idea on paper, it doesn’t translate to a compelling character. I understand Hoover was a very private person so it is not like I am expecting anything detailed, but give me something. I thought one of the points of a biopic was to give us some insight into what made the person tick, not a re-enactment of a Wikipedia page.
The other problem is that we have to move very quickly through Hoover’s life. It’s like if you ran through a Hoover exhibition at the museum and the guide was trying to give the whole lecture in one breath. “HewasbornhehadadomineeringmotherandhebecametheyoungestpersontobecomedirectoroftheFBIhebroughtinfingerprintingandforensicsandohbythewayherevolutionizedthecardcatalogsystem“ * passes out from lack of air* This kind of quick Cliffs Notes approach also applies to the characters and all we get are very broad strokes. We get that he is paranoid but no major reasons as to why he feels this way. We get the impression he is a strict moralist who is almost obsessively dedicated to his work but we don’t know where that comes from. We get he has a domineering mother (played by Judi Dench) but even her role is fuzzy and unclear. Why, for example, did she latch onto J. Edgar and not his unmentioned brother? It’s implied she is religious and into paranormal stuff, but how much does that factor into his upbringing? Most of the time rushing through a person’s entire history (especially one who’s career is as long as J. Edgar Hoover’s) diminishes the product. I don’t need to know what happened in Mark Zuckerberg’s childhood for example. I learned everything I need to about the man in a snapshot of when he made Facebook in The Social Network. I didn’t need to see Howard Hughes‘ whole life in The Aviator, by the end the audience can see the dark road he is heading down.
Even important side characters are pushed out of the way. Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) personally kept Hoover’s secret files and one of his most trusted associates. Why? Why did she do this? She was a close confidant and she did some illegal and immoral things for her boss but we are given no clues as to why she felt to close to this man. Where Eastwood goes out most on a limb (as far as historical accuracy) is the claim Hoover was in a romantic relationship with his second in command Clyde (Armie Hammer). But combined with the fact we are rushing through Hoover’s life and Eastwood’s inability to push things further we don’t learn much more from this. Again I am left asking things like: why is Clyde sticking with this man for his whole life? Why does he like Hoover? What does he get from the relationship? Of the times we see Hoover he is stern and does nothing but push Clyde away at even the slightest hint of intimacy. I just don’t get it.
The production of the movie is solid enough. For a relatively small budget, we get the proper look and feel of the era Hoover lived in. The aging effects are…inconsistent. For DiCaprio the aging looks good but for Hammer they are downright laughable. He is way too young looking for that process and it looks like Johnny Knoxville when he puts on old man makeup in the Jackass movies.
I didn’t hate this movie, but I guess I will join the camp of reviewers who were really let down by it. The production is solid, DiCaprio gives a fine performance, and you can tell Eastwood cared about the material. The main character though is still left as a mystery which, given the fact we are supposed to follow this person through a whole movie and learn about him, makes it feel like the movie is perpetually spinning its wheels. Halfway through the movie, the story felt like it grounded down to a dead stop and it never gained any of that momentum back. If you are interested in the subject, I would rather you wait for DVD. For everyone else, I don’t think it is worth your time.