J. Edgar - movie review

Reviews
by Leonard Maltin
November 10, 2011 12:22 AM
10 Comments
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Leonardo DiCaprio is not the first name that springs to mind as the embodiment of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—unlike, for instance, the title character in the upcoming remake of The Great Gatsby. I give the actor credit for his commitment to this assignment, but he’s still not quite right, especially if you’ve seen any newsreel footage of the bulldog-like Hoover. It’s more difficult to excuse screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood for making such a dull, monotonous biography of one of the 20th century’s most commanding and controversial figures.

Another glaring problem plagues the picture, which spans six decades: while one can (gradually) accept DiCaprio’s aging makeup, and even Naomi Watts’s, it is impossible to invest in any latter-day scene involving Armie Hammer because his old-age makeup is so astonishingly bad. Even if the film were brilliant, and it’s not, this would be a serious stumbling block, for which there is no apparent reason.

As for the dramaturgy, Black takes a nonlinear approach

to his subject, hopping back and forth in time to no particular effect. When we first see J. Edgar as a young man, he is embarking on his first investigation of Bolshevik terrorists in 1919 after they bomb the home of his boss, the Attorney General, in Washington, D.C. (He never wavered from his belief that our country was threatened by radicals on the home front, up to and including Martin Luther King Luther.) We also see his attempt to court a young woman on the secretarial staff who rebuffs his awkward advances but agrees to be his personal secretary—for the rest of her life. Yet we learn nothing else about Helen Gandy, and the part is a thankless one for the talented Watts.

We do learn that Hoover is dominated by his strong-willed mother (played by Judi Dench), that his father is non compos mentis (with no further elaboration or explanation), and that he is emotionally repressed, even before he meets Clyde Tolson (Hammer), his lifelong aide and companion who brings out his latent homosexual feelings, at least to some degree.

Anyone looking for greater insight into Hoover’s personality or his evolution as a political force will have to look elsewhere. This film is strictly superficial. I recall reading about Hoover’s fondness for the trendy Stork Club in Manhattan and his fruitful relationship with the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, but they don’t figure in this telling of his life story. There’s one brief allusion to him visiting New York and consorting with a movie star, but the only time we see him enjoying nightlife with a celebrity he becomes flustered and leaves abruptly.

Loose ends abound: Hoover’s mother refers to her two sons, but we never catch sight of (or hear about) J. Edgar’s brother beyond that single reference. There’s also an early dinner scene with Hoover’s young niece, who is never seen or mentioned again.

Beyond anything else, J. Edgar commits the cardinal movie sin: it’s dull. When there are specific points of comparison the film is especially vulnerable: the FBI chief’s showdowns with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy have been dramatized much more effectively in other films and TV shows.

Overall, it seems as if much more effort was expended on authentic-looking wardrobe and CGI shots of Washington, D.C. than on character development and narrative. Despite its obviously impressive pedigree, this movie can only be described as a misfire.

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10 Comments

  • Michael De Lazzer | December 4, 2011 11:57 PMReply

    I have to agree. I don't think Armie Hammer's face moved for half the movie. I never got past the bad make-up and I'm shocked Eastwood didn't put the brakes on production-- certainly he must have noticed. I thought Leo was an unusual choice, but he did well with the role. I liked that he chose to let the homosexuality play out behind closed doors. That's a brave choice not many directors would make. But the make-up just ruins the film.

  • Patrick M. Gouin | November 23, 2011 2:26 PMReply

    A very well done biopic. I had apprehensions after reading many negative reviews, but I found this film captivating. This unique historical figure created his own power base by deception and threats. The story of his life is sober and interesting with this subject matter where it would have been so easy to go over the top. The use of black and white to color helps to follow the story back and forth to the past. The images of the past are very realistic. Contrary to what I read, I found the makeup of the aging characters very life like. I must finally admit that Leonardo DiCaprio is a great actor and so much more than the «pretty boy» of Titanic. I could sum up this film this way: Norman Bates (Psycho) backstage to power throughout most of the 20th century in the USA. A keen interest with American politics helps to appreciate this film.

  • tink | November 18, 2011 1:25 PMReply

    All I can say is I really liked the film. The acting was great. Everyone in the theater liked it to. I will buy this when it comes out. I can see someone not liking it if they are big Kennedy fans.

  • Pat Lake | November 17, 2011 11:20 PMReply

    Well, I saw J.Edgar last night and did not have these negative reactions. I was not bored. I agree that there were loose ends, but I found how the overall story was structured compensated for these noted structural weaknesses. I was intrigued and remained gripped for the entire movie. I thought DiCaprio was excellent and had no issue with his makeup. I would offer that perhaps the failure to develop secondary characters reflects Hoover's self-obsession very effectively.

  • Jeffrey | November 14, 2011 2:05 PMReply

    I think JoeJoe just hit the nail on the head as to who should have played this role.

  • joejoe | November 12, 2011 9:08 PMReply

    I fell asleep. His character kept morphing into good guy/bad guy. His final shot made
    Di Caprio look like Phillip Seymour Hoffman stood in for him. Plodding movie.

  • john williams | November 11, 2011 10:34 PMReply

    this film was a complete let down. the make up was ridiculous but, most important, hoover
    was reduced to a cartoon. there was never the slightest hint of what attributes saw him rise to
    a position of enormous power and influence.
    dicaprio, hammer and watts deserved better. so did the audience.

  • Brian W. Fairbanks | November 11, 2011 5:39 PMReply

    I saw it this morning at an "early bird" showing and liked it. It's not a great film, but it is a very good one. It's certainly not what I expected. They could have turned Hoover's story into some kind of slam-bang action pic. Certainly, there was enough in his career to justify that approach. Instead, we get a love story in which the main character is unable to truly express his feelings. I found it touching.

    As for the makeup, I really don't understand the criticisms. It looked fine to me, and the acting was superb. I agree that Naomi Watts is stuck in a thankless role, but DiCaprio and Hammer are terrific. Both are deserving of Oscar nominations, and I think this may be DiCaprio's year to win.

    I think Hoover himself prevents this from being a truly great film simply because he was obviously so emotionally repressed. As a result, the film seems to hold back a bit. Still, very much worth seeing, especially on a weekend when the big winner at the box-office will probably be Immortals.

  • Bob Lindstrom | November 11, 2011 2:35 PMReply

    Given the nature of Hoover's life--not just his sexual preference (whatever it was) but the way he obsessively secured his power via political blackmail--his story would seem to be best served, not by a prestige production, but by an exploitation flick, a la Cohen's "The Private Files..."

  • Jeffrey | November 10, 2011 11:34 PMReply

    I pray that Clint Eastwood directs another film. This cannot be his last one.

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