Release Date: November 11, 2011
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts
MPAA Rating: R
J. Edgar features a solid performance by Leonardo DiCaprio and a slew of fascinating tidbits about the life of the first and most famous director of the FBI. Unfortunately, the films ends up being less than the sum of its parts. Perhaps fittingly, it has a slow, methodical pace and an overly matter-of-fact style that sucks all of the fun out of the story. Unfortunately, all too often, the film comes across as “Just the facts, ma’am.”
It’s a shame because Hoover is certainly a riveting figure worthy of a great biopic. He shaped the FBI into what it is today – taking it from a powerless figurehead organization to the thriving national investigation unit it is today. He oversaw some of the most famous investigations in our nationa’s history, including Kennedy’s assassination, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and all of the infamous Depression era gangsters and their various crimes. He was a pioneer in forensic evidence and modern investigation tactics. Add to that his uptight, insecure personality and his rumored proclivity for cross dressing and you have a recipe for a fantastic film.
Leonardo DiCaprio does his part to bring Hoover to life and his portrayal of the character is quite impressive. I’m not a huge fan of DiCaprio. I think he has a tendency to switch into autopilot and play the same boyish, charming character in most of his films. But here he creates something wholly unique.
DiCaprio’s Hoover is quite captivating. He walks around with a sour look on his face most of the time, like he’s constantly sucking on a lemon. He has a quite confidence and assertiveness, but he’s also meek and reserved. You can sense the insecurities just below the surface. When flustered, he begins stuttering uncontrollably. The best moments in the film are the ones that reveal something about Hoover’s strange psyche.
He was clearly insecure about his height and very unsure of himself whenever he interacted with women. But most of all, the man couldn’t handle anyone upstaging him. In one scene, he admires the marble fireplace in Bobby Kennedy’s office. Later in the film, we see he’s had the exact same fireplace installed in his own office. In another scene, a Senator at a Congressional hearing points out that on the radio and in comic books, Hoover likes to be depicted as kicking down gangsters’ doors with a machine gun in hand and slapping the cuffs on them himself, but in reality he never actually makes any arrests. Shortly thereafter, Hoover begins arresting criminals himself, stopping to pose for photo ops before hauling the bad guys to the station.
He also spends a lot of time complaining to his trusted right-hand man (and possible lover) Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) about all of the attention FBI agent Melvin Purvis received for killing John Dillinger. After seeing Purvis’ face plastered on a cereal box, Hoover tells Tolson he wants Purvis either off the force or permanently on a desk to prevent him from getting further accolades.
Hammer does quite a good job portraying Tolson, who in the film is presented as comfortable in his homosexuality and frustrated with Hoover’s inability to act on his desires for Clyde. Hammer has a phenomenal scene where he directly confronts Hoover about this – first verbally, then physically – that may very well earn him a Best Supporting Actor nomination. Hammer is less convincing in his portrayal of an elderly Tolson, but part of that is due to some surprisingly bad age makeup.
DiCaprio’s age makeup is quite terrible too. At one point in a closeup, I could actually see the line where his prosthetic cheekbones ended and his actually neck began because the prosthetic piece was improperly masked. The prosthetics and makeup used are incredibly unconvincing, which is a big problem since quite a bit of the film takes place at the end of Hoover’s life.
That’s actually one of the film’s other fatal flaws – it’s overall structure. The film is set at the end of Hoover’s life with him dictating stories to a variety of agents who are tasked with turning them into a book. It’s a completely unnecessary plot device. The narration provided by the elder Hoover is quite flat and uninspired and too much screen time is given to Hoover simply standing in his office talking to someone perched in front of a typewriter.
The film is structured this way in part to present Hoover as an unreliable narrator and to show the early stages of his career from his point of view, but it never really commits to this idea. Instead, it arbitrarily switches back and forth between showing us Hoover’s unreliable perspective on how things happened, which tend to paint him in a favorable and heroic light, and showing us scenes that Hoover would be either unlikely to share with an FBI agent writing his biography (like the more intimate, private moments with Clyde) or moments that make him look petty and insecure (like the aforementioned tantrum over Agent Pervus’ notoriety).
Also hurting the film is Director Clint Eastwood’s decision to present these flashback scenes with a washed out, muted color pallet. Everything in the past looks very dull and gray, which may have made since to Eastwood for the mood he was trying to convey, but ends up making the film seem ever more stuffy and joyless than it already comes across.
Still, if you are particularly interested in Hoover’s life, the birth of the FBI or the various historical moments depicted in the film, you should find J. Edgar worthwhile, if not particularly riveting. The historical content combined with strong performances from DiCaprio and Hammer give the film enough redeeming qualities to make it worth watching, but the flaws in the storytelling and the shoddy age makeup keep it from being as good as it should be.
Written by Joel Murphy. If you enjoy his reviews, he also writes a weekly pop culture column called Murphy’s Law, which you can find here. You can contact Joel at firstname.lastname@example.org.