It’s rare to find a biopic where the filmmakers show so much contempt for their subject.
Such is the case with “J. Edgar,” a decades-spanning account of the man who ran the FBI for nearly 50 years. Leonardo DiCaprio takes on the role of J. Edgar Hoover with his usual gusto, but the resulting film offers a detached, meandering account of the controversial figure.
Director Clint Eastwood depicts Hoover as an egotistical, lying bully. A petty stutterer with mommy issues. A boorish bulldog with an equal disdain for communism, mobsters, the Kennedys, Martin Luther King Jr., Richard Nixon and women in general. It’s been a long time since an individual this aggressively unsympathetic warranted 2 1/2 hours of screen time.
“Innovators aren’t often celebrated — not at first,” Hoover explains.
The movie begins with the elderly FBI director dictating his memoir to a string of agents. Flashbacks reveal how Hoover honed his hatred of radicals during the Palmer Raids in 1919 and 1920. Here he gained a healthy appetite for bending rules and waging personal vendettas.
Eastwood attempts to showcase Hoover’s triumphs in law enforcement that turned a culture smitten with gangsters into one equally fascinated by the bureau (bust out those Junior G-Man buttons!). But each legitimate advancement in crime fighting (fingerprinting, forensics labs) is alternately used to further his penchant for harassing celebrities and blackmailing political enemies.
The most polemic thread in the picture involves Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer of “The Social Network”), who was Hoover’s right-hand man and alleged lover. Though they made a lifelong pact to share every lunch and dinner together, the movie depicts their union as habitually chaste. Hoover falls into the role of surly curmudgeon, while the doting Tolson handles the schedule and makes pithy comments. (It’s hard not to notice their interaction mirrors that of Mr. Burns and Smithers on “The Simpsons.”)
Regardless of how truth and rumors collide, the Tolson material gives the film a much-needed boost of humor and pathos. Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of “Milk,” seems more at ease exploring the day-to-day inequities of this relationship than he does the chronicles of wiretapping.
From a production standpoint, “J. Edgar” is a handsomely mounted effort, with a nice attention to the sterile detail of each bureaucratic era depicted. Eastwood’s go-to cinematographer, Tom Stern, leans toward the under-lit look, partnering with the film’s dismal subject.
Most of the technical conversation about the project will likely focus on the makeup effects (attributed to a whopping 15 people on Internet Movie Database). It’s impressive how DiCaprio can effectively age from 24 to 77 and play someone of whom he is the near physical antithesis. His makeup — and that of his long-suffering secretary, Helen (Naomi Watts) — is remarkable.
Apparently, the prosthetic budget was spent only on those two. Hammer’s transformation from dashing male model to shuffling, liver-spotted senior is not only unconvincing, but when coupled with his character’s post-stroke mannerisms, it’s downright campy.
By the film’s end, Eastwood has poked around a lot but revealed little beyond the “unchecked fame leads to villainy” motif. “J. Edgar” proves that even the most significant historical figure isn’t always the best choice for having his life adapted to the big screen.
• Ink: “'J. Edgar' joins 'The Changeling,' 'Hereafter' and 'Invictus' on the list of movies that are essentially shallow crowd-pleasers designed to appeal solely to our hearts and leave our heads unchallenged, and it serves as a reminder that for all his iconic status, Clint Eastwood is not, in fact, a terrific director.” • Time magazine:
“You might expect ‘J. Edgar’ to trump (1977’s) ‘The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover’ with even ballsier revelations or, taking the high road, more elevated insights. Instead, the film manages to be both sensational and stodgy, like a guided tour that goes on until it drones.”
•Los Angeles Times:
“A somber, enigmatic, darkly fascinating tale, and how could it be otherwise? Starring an impressive Leonardo DiCaprio and crafted with Clint Eastwood’s usual impeccable professionalism, “J. Edgar” gets its power from the way the director’s traditional filmmaking style interacts with the revisionist thrust of Dustin Lance Black’s script.”
•Chicago Tribune: “Director Clint Eastwood’s ‘J. Edgar,’ featuring a valiant performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, is a demure, rather touching inquiry into this possibility. This may be a closety film about a closety character, but the tensions between Eastwood’s direction and the script he’s directing keep us off-guard in an intriguing way.”