Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Nothing ventured, nothing gained

J. Edgar is an overlong, ultra serious biography of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who ran the FBI with an iron fist for more than four decades. As it stands, this film would be a failure from any filmmaker, but as Clint Eastwood directed it, it has to be considered a major disappointment.

As you might expect from Eastwood, this is a handsome-looking film with outstanding production design, appropriately moody cinematography and impressive costume design. Eastwood has done a first-rate job recreating scenes from the 1930s through the early 1970s, but all of that is eye candy, given his plodding direction. Eastwood has always taken his time telling his stories and he does so here again (the movie is two hours and seventeen minutes long), but to little or no avail, as the story just doesn't have much dramatic tension to hold our interest.

Eastwood seems content merely recreating famous incidents in Hoover's life and to be sure, the careful analysis of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping makes for interesting viewing, especially with the subplot of Hoover lobbying Congress to make kidnapping a federal crime, so his bureau could take over the case and grab any potential headlines.

But many other sequences are merely filmed recreations (complete with some obvious CGIs) that serve merely as moments in this man's life. It's a little like flipping through a deck of cards - when you're finished, what did you accomplish? When you think about the way that Eastwood told the heartbreaking story of Japanese and American soldiers in Letters from Iwo Jima (2006), you can hardly believe this is the same filmmaker.

Yes, Leonardo DiCaprio is very good as Hoover (does he ever give a less than interesting performance?), although I preferred his turn in The Aviator (2004). I also liked the honest way that the film deals with the homosexual relationship between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who was second in command to Hoover at the FBI for many years. Their penultimate scene together at a dinner at Tolson's home late in each other's life, where they express their feelings for each other, is sensitively written (Dustin Lance Black who authored the screenplay for Milk in 2008, performed those chores here) and directed and scored by Eastwood.

But truly interesting scenes like this one are too rare in this film. Eastwood and Black went for too much of an historical angle here, while a more pointed personal analysis would have been welcome. There's even a brief scene that answers the controversy of Hoover as a cross dresser. This could have been a much-talked about scene, but as it's presented in the film, it simply feels tacked on.

When I saw Gran Torino (2008), I thought to myself that this would have been the perfect closing act in Clint Eastwood's directorial career, as it summed up much of what he has been saying in his films for forty years. I hope I can change my mind soon and see one more great film from Eastwood, because he hasn't been in top form lately (last year's Hereafter was rather dull). This film, as serious and as well-intentioned as it may be, doesn't break any new ground and worse off, has Eastwood play it safe in his directorial choices. Given that, one wonders why Eastwood made the film in the first place, unless he was attracted to the private world of his main character. Whatever the reason, J Edgar is a rather uninspired film.


  1. Whatever its other flaws, I felt like the biggest disappointment was that after this rather long movie, you aren't left with a clear sense of Hoover's political legacy. As you said, why Hoover, why now?

  2. Jacqueline:

    Excellent point- a few scenes with some opposing viewpoints (senators or other lawmakers talking about Hoover's methods) would have helped this film.

    For as controversial a man as he was, that aspect is rarely touched upon in this film.