Review: Di Caprio in ‘J. Edgar’ offers easy answers about morally complex character

11.08.11 6 years ago 11 Comments

Warner Bros

I think it’s safe to say that Clint Eastwood has secured his legacy as a filmmaker.

Even if he’d quit directing after he totally crushed it with “Unforgiven,” he would have made the case for himself as a world-class director.  But at this point, the only filmmaker who works faster or more frequently appears to be Woody Allen, and like Allen, he works often enough that for every great movie he makes, at least two or three of his movies are nearly impossible to sit through.  I’m amazed at how bulletproof he is these days, critically speaking, but I think the real respect you can pay an artist is to react honestly to their work and not just give them a pass based on who they are.

I can’t in good conscience recommend that you see “J. Edgar,” which of course isn’t going to stop anyone from actually seeing it.  After all, it is Eastwood directing with a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” and it stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, and a typically dense Eastwood cast.  Sounds great, right?

After all, the life of J. Edgar Hoover would seem to be rich ground from which to draw dramatic inspiration.  There was a period of my life where I was intensely fascinated by the history of intelligence and counter-intelligence in America and around the world, and I was a voracious reader on the subject.  And Hoover was such a big part of that, such a towering figure and such an important lesson in how power could corrupt.  I read a number of books on him and on the Bureau, and I have seen many of Hollywood’s attempts to grapple with him as an icon and a character.  Just two years ago, Billy Crudup played him in “Public Enemies,” for example.  I really liked the Bob Hoskins version in Oliver Stone’s searing “Nixon,” a film that tackles a similar real-life character with far more precision and effect than “J. Edgar” manages.  I’m still dying to see Larry Cohen’s “The Private Files Of J. Edgar Hoover” and am holding out for a theatrical screening of it.  I love the underlying material here.  I’m not sure how you can take this power-mad little bulldog, jealously guarding his own kinks and quirks while building a power base built on knowing everyone else’s, and render him not only dull but obvious.

They did it, though.  All blame must begin with the screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, which is full of the most painful exposition and the most ham-handed psychological explanations that I can imagine.  This is Biopic As Therapy, and I don’t buy their overall conception of Hoover.  They connect the big dots in Hoover’s life in the most simplistic way possible, using his mother Annie (Dench), his career-long secretary and companion Helen Gandy (Watts) and his most trusted assistant Clyde Tolson (Hammer) as symbols more than characters, the wants and needs that define J. Edgar turned into human beings.  The film is not remotely subtle in its suggestion that the Hoover/Tolson relationship is a gay relationship, a romance that lasts decades without consummation.  It is equally unsubtle in its portrait of the g-man as a mama’s boy, and the connection between that idea and the closeted relationship results in a scene I can’t believe, a truly disastrous way of trying to turn this surface read of this man’s psychological landscape into a single image.  It is a full-hearted attempt to paint a certain version of the public image of Hoover a certain way, but it’s more like a committee of people sat down and tried to engineer an Oscar-winning biopic in a very calculated, cynical way, resulting in something that has no real focus or soul or pulse.

The film is technically accomplished, and why wouldn’t it be?  At this point, Eastwood has this pool of people he can draw from, and they’re all in tune with his sensibilities and they’re able to give his films a beautiful sheen and polish.  The only department that I think tanked on their jobs is the make-up department, and I feel bad for them.  They had to convincingly make both Hammer and DiCaprio into older men, and they had to also create several different looks for them to show the passage of time.  I don’t buy the old age stuff at all, and it’s so off, so distracting and strange, that it kept pulling me out of the movie instead of convincing me that these were two characters with a rich and disturbing personal history.

There is no way anyone involved can claim that this is about anything but the connection between Hoover’s inner life and his public behavior.  It’s got a very specific thematic throughline, and by the end of the film, it’s become a tragic love story about two men who like to wear heavy latex appliances and never touch each other.  Considering the amount of speculation and invention that goes on in this storyline, it seems hard to categorize this as a true story.  The choices that have been made regarding which material to emphasize, moments like the deportation of Emma Goldman or his relationship with Robert Kennedy or his involvement in the kidnapping of the baby of Charles Lindbergh, seem odd in terms of what gets explored fully and what gets glossed over.  I’m not convinced that Black really has a particular insight into what Hoover was about or what drove him beyond some of the surface ideas that have been floated, and this script doesn’t have enough dramatic structure to pay off the big choices it makes.  It’s one of those films where someone is telling their story to someone else, and we see that story play out in long flashbacks, and I find that a fairly dull structure in most cases.  Unless you’re gaining some thematic insight from the way you’re cutting back and forth, paying off both parts of your film fully, then I don’t think you should build a film that way.  It just feels like stops and starts and very little overall energy.

Handsomely made in many ways, the thing that really felt like a letdown to me, more than anything else, was DiCaprio’s work as Hoover.  He seems profoundly miscast, from his strange vocal choice of accent and tone to the make-up that wears him to the way he tries to play old age, and Hammer’s just as wrong for his role.  There are moments of camp here that I think fit the classic definition, totally unaware of the inherent camp value of what’s happening, and both Hammer and DiCaprio seem to be looking for direction that just wasn’t there.  They’re adrift, making choices that don’t add up to any sort of coherent portrait over time.  Hammer doesn’t really know what to do with Tolson’s long-suffering act, and when he does finally stand up and reveal himself, it’s shrill, not thrilling.  Watts is asked to do a lot of understated shock as she reacts to various bad choices Hoover makes, and that’s it.  Even the notion of the film’s last few scenes with Watts could have been part of a sequence that was genuinely tense, with huge stakes for the country and for Hoover’s legacy, and instead, it’s sort of a matter of fact presentation, more afterschool special than legitimate Oscar bait.  It feels like a whiff, no matter how well gift-wrapped it is.

“J. Edgar” opens in limited release tomorrow, then everywhere on Friday.

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