J. Edgar should be a film that delivers the quality goods that it’s slickly produced trailers so tantalizingly tease; especially given it’s primary component parts of Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, a stellar supporting cast of accomplished actors and the usually superb direction of Clint Eastwood.
Indeed, walking into this film, I was filled with hope, great anticipation, and excitement for a film experience that would leave me feeling entertained, artistically satisfied and perhaps, some level of deeper insight into the enigmatic J. Edgar Hoover.
Alas, what I received instead was an admirably ambitious, but flawed attempt to portray Hoover as a multi-layered and troubled law enforcement innovator; combined with “Mommie Dearest” style innuendo and rumors about Hoover’s sexuality and mother issues, presented as historic fact.
The end result is a mix of occasionally interesting moments on film primarily propelled by DiCaprio’s sincere commitment to the role and it’s portrayal; but, coupled with too many other elements that sadly fall short.
More often than not, J. Edgar veers into near laughable melodrama. This misstep occurs most especially when Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ( Milk ) frequently turn away from focusing on Hoover’s exploits building the FBI; and instead, touch on Hoover’s implied troubled relationship with his controlling mother ( Judi Dench ) and his rumored romantic relationship with Clyde Tolson ( Armie Hammer ), his longtime partner and professional second-in-command at the agency.
Eastwood presents a story structure for “J. Edgar” that veers back and forth through various stages of Hoover’s life and career; with the common thread of Hoover dictating his memoirs to a series of young agents dutifully typing his recollections of his glory days with the FBI for a planned book. The result is, at times, confusing and visually annoying as well; as the audience is presented with scenes of a young vibrant looking Hoover one moment; suddenly juxtaposed with a subsequent scene with an older Hoover, requiring DiCaprio to wear often unconvincing and distracting layers of prosthetic makeup.
The film does break some new territory by retelling a rarely examined piece of US history; the 1919 Palmer raids against anarchists and other suspected radicals of the era. Following a series of bombings, U.S. Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer, with the assistance of the young 24-year old Hoover, effectively uses the newly formed FBI to target and arrest people for their perceived dangerous ideas and politics without evidence of any crimes.
“J. Edgar” strongly suggests this period to be the mold that shaped Hoover’s eventual willingness to embrace bending the rule of law in order to get those he considered to be the not-so-obvious bad guys throughout his entire career as head of the FBI.
As Hoover states in the film, ” sometimes you need to bend the rules a little to keep our country safe”.
As the film progresses, we are shown via Hoover’s on-screen recollections and voice-over narrative, many of the highlights that many are familiar with regarding the FBI’s genesis and evolution. We see the infamous Lindbergh baby kidnapping and the investigation to find the child’s killer. We witness the FBI’s growing focus on science and forensics to solve crimes via the, then scoffed at, methodology of fingerprinting and more.
We witness the capture or killings of the gangsters like John Dillinger, Alvin Karpis and others that would catapult the FBI and Hoover into nationwide celebrity. However, what is also explored is how Hoover seems at some level, less focused on capturing the criminals; as he is more intent on cultivating his personal reputation via often orchestrated publicity and demanding the respect, and perhaps fear of himself, among those who surround him.
History seems to paint Hoover as a deeply flawed man who recklessly wielded an obscene amount of power, influence and intimidation during his decades-long tenure in Washington as head of the FBI; willing to blackmail the Kennedys, Martin Luther King and others via secret wiretaps, and illegally obtained information held in Hoover’s own secret files.
Eastwood and DiCaprio seem earnest in their effort to solve the enigma that was Hoover; but often the script comes across as an effort to both demonize and humanize Hoover equally. As a result, the audience is left confused and bewildered about whether to hate, distain or simply pity the man.
The film, no pun intended, skirts becoming unintentionally laughable during a scene following the death of Hoover’s overbearing mother; when DiCaprio as Hoover tries on her necklace and dress in front of her mirror. Is Hoover trying to connect with his mother’s memory in sheer grief ?
Is he tapping into his alleged repressed and conflicted sexuality with this act ?
… or is he simply connecting with his inner Norman Bates ?
The motive behind this scene is unclear, save for evoking stifled giggles among the audience members witnessing this odd moment.
The melodrama swells to laughable levels during what Eastwood certainly hopes is one of the film’s more touching moments towards the end. Hoover and Tolson, now old men, share breakfast together and exchange sincere words of affection and even a gentle kiss on the forehead.
Unfortunately, the scene is undercut by laughable dialogue, maudlin acting and the two actors smothered beneath ridiculously unconvincing layers of makeup that distract from any intended emotional impact that would ring true or real.
“J. Edgar” is most certainly intended as an Oscar contender and the scope and ambition of the project would seem to guarantee that consideration. However, Oscars shouldn’t be awarded for sheer ambition alone.
This film could have been… and should have been a compelling bio-pic of a deeply flawed and powerful figure in American history. Instead, it is pure soap opera complete with a predictable evil mother figure and an ultimately tragic love story intended to evoke misty eyed emotion.
Perhaps, Eastwood should have taken a cue from another law enforcement story… and in straightforward “Dragnet” style… simply told, just the facts, M’am.
See more of Tim’s reviews at: www.TimEstiloz.com