Movie Review: J. Edgar
Director: Clint Eastwood
Reviewed: 2 July 2012
With the pedigree of Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, and Judi Dench, with the cachet of Oscar-winning director Clint Eastwood and Oscar-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, and the tantalizing subject of one of America's most secretive public figures debunked, the film J. Edgar collapses under the weight of its own self-importance, pounds of garish make-up, and its unwieldy focus on the eponymous subject. The film simply isn't sure what it wants to be. Tell-all biopic? Commentary on our post-9-11 world? The movie about the Lindbergh baby kidnapping? A study of repression within the one American who knew everyone's secrets? A tragic love story? After viewing this bloated film, I'm still not sure.
Clint Eastwood begins the film with promise: the (unknown to me) 1919 Bolshevik bombings of American houses and Senators, a coordinated attack of great power and a precursor of later day terrorism, which scars a young Edgar as he bikes by the carnage and picks up the leaflets left by the attackers. DiCaprio's Edgar is a go-getter in the Bureau, a momma's boy who is fastidious about his wardrobe and socially awkward with a nervous stutter, yet conniving and relentless in his myopic pursuit of what he wants A botched marriage proposal to secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) results in a lifetime commitment as his personal secretary and keeper of secrets. Dinner every night with Mother (Judi Dench) influences Edgar's clothing and philosophies, as well as his self-loathing and guilt. Friendship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) reveals him to be the crush that Edgar hires impulsively as Assistant Director and befriends while rebuilding the Bureau's reputation and his own wardrobe. As a frame narrative, Eastwood shows an army of young male agents helping Edgar type his life story which is intertwined with the history of the Bureau and the rise of forensic science. For as much time as Edgar is shown to be a visionary of law enforcement with his prescient belief in the integration of science into their work such as fingerprinting, Eastwood gives at least twice as much focus to Edgar's bloated, reptilian face and his waddling to the window during inaugurations as well as his cryptic blackmailing of presidents with his infamous files. There's a lack of balance or just priority in this film. For example, so much time is given to the Lindergh case, but without context, emotion, and clarity it is difficult to tell how the case enraptured the public's attention, the timeframe of the kidnapping and its investigation, the aftermath of its resolution. Edgar rushes a federal law into place post Lindbergh kidnapping which Clint Eastwood seems to be drawing comparison to the Patriot Act, yet was making kidnapping a federal crime an example of overreach or just good politics? Edgar menacingly states that rules have to be bent to find the criminals, and there's the implication that the Lindbergh killer may not even be guilty. He seems to push for profiling and wire-tapping, all post-9-11 hot topics, though he stops the brutal beating of a suspect at one point, suggesting a disgust for violence? Yet beyond these surface comparisons to modern day America, I'm not sure where Eastwood is going with this. The film lacks the conviction to do much with Edgar's repressed sexuality and his close friendship with Clyde Tolson beyond hint and dodge. A mid-film throw-down fight is welcome for its change of pace, but the blending of past and present becomes tiresome and artless, draining the film of any momentum or sense of time. And a final scene loses any dramatic power, though a quotation chosen to end the film is intriguing.
Interesting points include Edgar's sheer terror at having met his match in the hands of Richard Nixon and, perhaps, some remorse at the natural result of his paranoia and wire-tapping, the Nixonian tactics that would lead to Watergate. Also, the relationship between Edgar and his loyal secretary Miss Gandy is one of great interest. What drew Miss Gandy to Edgar? Was she a lesbian? Why the loyalty, even until the end?
However fun it is to consider the role of a public figure who served under eight presidents (Just consider the sheer jumps in technology and law enforcement from Presidents Hoover through Nixon!), ultimately, J. Edgar chooses not to go deep into Edgar's obviously haunted psyche, what drove him to such lengths, his obsession with using Hollywood and the G-Man image to project his will on the American public, or his thirst for power. How much of his actions are self-loathing? How did Edgar personally reconcile his own hypocrisy with his pursuit of hypocritical public figures? Did religion play a part at all in his inner-life? Early on, Director Stone informs Edgar that his colleagues call him Speedy behind his back. He chooses the name J. Edgar when asked to create a new account at a clothing store after meeting Clyde. The name as title is an interesting one. What was J. Edgar's reputation behind his back during those years of power? How public was his homosexuality? How did J. Edgar turn into the lampooned caricature well-known to most Americans? What was going on with his father's mental illness? These questions are exciting ones for me, but the the roving pack of writers helping tell the story and the ultimate exposure of Edgar as an unreliable narrator address these ideas remotely and obliquely, and never in a satisfying or thoughtful way. Edgar's racism lies similarly unexplored during an especially virulent attack on Martin Luther King, Jr. on the eve of his Nobel Peace Prize acceptance.
I guess I am confused because Clint Eastwood has made some of the most acclaimed films of the past twenty years: Unforgiven, A Perfect World, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino. He built a story around one of the finest actors of our time in DiCaprio, and he employed a top screenplay from acclaimed Milk writer Dustin Lance Black. His film ultimately registers alongside Public Enemies, Michael Mann's misfire from a few summer's ago: a promising film of the 1920's-1930's with a star performance of an American icon which loses its focus as it goes on for far too long. That is not to say that there is not a great movie in here somewhere. J. Edgar Hoover remains a captivating 20th Century figure, a contradictory tragic hero, one seemingly shaped by Bolshevik attacks on American soil which infused his paranoia and obsession. I think that J. Edgar Hoover deserves a more thoughtful film with a better script. And none of the cast benefits from the pounds of garish make-up that they wear for more than half the film. I wonder if it would have been better to cast older actors and actresses instead of piling on the receding hairlines, the liver spots, the paunch, and the neck wrinkles to stars DiCaprio, Watts, and Hammer? If your movie is going to require more than half of its running time with your stars hidden under latex and make-up, when does that decision ultimately hamper a younger actor or actress? I like all three performances, and I wonder why DiCaprio was not nominated for Best Actor. I just simply might not be a great performance from him. I wonder how it stacks up against Meryl Streep's Oscar-winning performance as Margaret Thatcher in The Iron Lady. A disappointing misfire.