Movie Review: J. Edgar

J. Edgar
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench
Release Date: November 11, 2011

Submerged in sloppy sentiment, J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood‘s latest directorial effort, is unrelieved of its melodramatic characteristics, growing sappier as the film approaches its conclusion. Instead of getting an aggressively bold portrait of J. Edgar Hoover, a man undoubtedly built into the firmament of American history, we get a dreary and almost entirely lifeless (save for Leonardo DiCaprio‘s vigorous performance as Hoover) film that teeters on a precipitous cliff until it finally crumbles and dissolves into a pool of cheap melodrama.

Mr. Eastwood usually navigates keenly the narrow road that divides drama from melodrama. We have been accustomed, to the point of being spoiled, to witness him effortlessly depict his craft in top form in Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby, two films that could have easily mingled with cheap sappiness but instead were rescued by assured direction and consistently intelligent scripts.

Eastwood’s direction, shockingly for the first time in a while, seems to be incoherent, disconnected, and overly feverish, trying to condense all that Hoover achieved into a mere two-and-a-half hours. We first see Hoover as an old man in the 1960s. DiCaprio, no longer retaining the exuberance of youth, looks striking similar to James Dean’s old, withered character in Giant. Hoover, now an old man, fully gesticulating as he remembers his past, dictates to a young man the moments that made Hoover who he is. As he dictates, the film jumps back in time to chart a certain occurrence, whether it is the beginning days of the FBI, a first time romance with his soon-to-be secretary (Naomi Watts), or a well concealed affectionate encounter with the Associate Director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

To the viewers’ dismay, Eastwood prefers the unsavory moments of Hoover’s life (affections for a man? unable to cultivate a relationship with a woman?) rather than the most impressive ones (the Lindbergh kidnapping, the birth of the FBI and the G-Men, wiretapping Jack Kennedy, and sending threatening letters to Martin Luther King). All of these moments beg for more expression: never expounding on either of them leads to them being irrecoverable moments that Eastwood failed to sufficiently devour.

J. Edgar crams together too many of Hoover’s noteworthy moments, a deficiency that plagues the entire film and renders it lifeless. The script is by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the disproportioned script to Milk (another film charting a politician’s private life). Black’s inability to confine himself to a select number of moments in Hoover’s life leads to an unbalanced film that cannot provide intimacy when intimacy is needed.

DiCaprio, though, does detach himself from the sleepy and timid script as he conveys to the viewers how delicate this rigid man’s life truly was. Awkwardness ensues when Hoover doesn’t know what move to make next on a woman, and DiCaprio shows Hoover at his most unpolished when he tries, with no avail, to discuss his unknowable sexuality with his domineering mother (Judi Dench). The film doesn’t peer extensively into its subject matters’ seemingly endless depths. If it weren’t for DiCaprio’s performance, J. Edgar would be a massive dud. Mr. Hoover was such a rigorous and strict man when it came to business matters. And this rigidity didn’t seep into his personal life. DiCaprio realizes this and fully gets into the anatomy of Hoover, in a performance that ultimately leads to the heart of the matter: A man who created the FBI but who was unable to perceive his own faults and issues.

Rating **1/2 out of *****

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