Review: J. Edgar

***originally written 9 March 2012***

Hmm. The biopic. Maybe the most thankless of film genres. How do you summarise a life? How do you condense years into two hours? The answer, most often, is that you don’t. You can’t. Which is why so many of them don’t work. They feel like cliff-notes at best. Worse still, it often forces an actor – especially when portraying a figure from recent history – into an impersonation rather than a performance. It’s a knife-edge to get it right. Is anyone’s favourite film a biopic? I’d like to know.

My knowledge about J. Edgar Hoover was, to be truthful, middling. I knew a few facts, but not much. Head of the F.B.I pretty much covered it. I’d heard the rumours and opinions of course. Notoriously difficult, slippery. Cross-dresser? Homosexual? But who trusts rumour? The idea of finding out more about him interested me. Add to that Clint Eastwood as director, and I was sold on giving J. Edgar a go.

Eastwood has become something of a legend himself, having fashioned two excellent careers, firstly as an actor – all chiselled jaw and steely mentality – and latterly as one of the most respected Hollywood directors. Now in his eighties, he shows no sign of slowing down. Between 2006 and 2008 alone he managed to direct 4 major motion pictures. His style is classical. Painterly lighting, beautiful but unfussy set-ups, a concentration on setting and performance. Sometimes this can come off as cold, detached. However he has undeniably made some great pictures recently. Gran Torino, Million Dollar Baby and Letters From Iwo Jima stand out especially.

His last two pictures were somewhat off the boil however. Invicitus failed to ignite, and the less said about Hereafter the better. It looked as though the ‘purple patch’ of his career was over. So, in a sense, a lot seems to be riding on J. Edgar.

Casting Leonardo Di Caprio was an interesting choice. He’s not an obvious fit for the part. Yet the man proves up to the task, especially in portraying the young, eager incarnation of the earnest director. The film itself flits back and forth between Hoover’s early days as director of the bureau, and the last years of his life in the 60s. It doesn’t make the mistake of most biopics in trying to span the man’s entire life and career, instead focusing on particular points, largely the investigation surrounding the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. It is this police procedural section that arguably works best of all, providing an interesting glimpse into a world of investigation that was being completely overhauled by new methods and ideas (watch out for Stephen Root appearing as a wood analyst).

Of course, particular attention is paid to Hoover’s relationship with his doting yet hard mother (Judi Dench), and his close bond to his ‘number two’ Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer). Any of the scenes played out between Di Caprio and these supporting players could be argued as highlights in the movie; so much of what is portrayed is so clinical, that when emotional baggage gets unpacked the effect is quite powerful. Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black subscribe to the belief that Hoover’s relationship with Tolson was infused with complicated homosexual desires, and it is played out as such. One confrontation between the two which sees them coming to blows is particularly memorable.

What proves far less successful are the sections set in the 60s. Not only are the key political events in the background alluded to with the assumption of the viewer’s full knowledge (I’d like to have had more clarification on the Martin Luther King storyline) but the performances are hampered by the sheer weight of make-up applied to the leads. The under-used Naomi Watts fares best here, but Di Caprio and especially Hammer look uncomfortable and unable to move. When turning to look at someone, Hammer has to turn his entire body he is so restricted. By the end it gives the strange sensation of watching a kitchen-sink drama performed by Statler and Waldorf from The Muppets.

In the end, J. Edgar comes out mainly winning favour, but still suffering from the sense that two hours is not enough time to do a man’s life justice. It’s not a bad picture, but it’s two and a quarter hours do feel substantially longer than that. The tone is also a little off; whilst Hoover’s direction of the Lindbergh investigation and his misdirection of his personal life are both equally compelling, they play slightly at odds to one another. Perhaps, as with most pictures in this genre, a little more focus would have paid dividends. By no means a failure for Eastwood – or anyone involved – but it doesn’t quite rank beside his other successes listed above.

Score:  3

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