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It’s a tough thing to want to like a film and finding that’s not the
case up until the last half hour. That’s not to say that the rest of J. Edgar is
bad, in fact it’s far from it, but the film suffers from more than a few
shortfalls in terms of storytelling and editing. Although we are allowed a little clarity and emotional resonance toward the end, it
still feels like J. Edgar is a product half-finished.
Coming from director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar tells
the story of a young John Edgar Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) early
brushes with criminology during the early 20th Century. Obsessed with
the nature of organization and the science of how crimes could be solved
(fingerprints, lab analysis), he comes to work at the Justice
Department’s Bureau of Investigation. Eventually Hoover is tasked with
creating the Federal Bureau of Investigation, enlisting the help of his
secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and law school graduate-turned agent
Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). As the film goes on, it is told from the
perspective of both Hoover in his younger days at the FBI as well as an
aged Hoover recounting his memoirs during the ’60s.
To get the obvious out of the way, DiCaprio once more gives it his all
and continues to bolster the strength of his resume as a leading man.
Even if the makeup work for older Hoowver makes him look like a
criminal mastermind from a spy caper (with glasses), he still shines as a
man obsessed with his work. The film is only bolstered by Hammer, whose
Tolson is as charming as he is tragic. While never confirmed (the
debates are endless), it was widely speculated and confirmed by some
after Hoover’s death that he was a closet homosexual and shared a
relationship with Tolson for decades. Eastwood and Black were not afraid
to take DiCaprio and Hammer down a few roads exploring the motion of
Hoover and Tolson’s relationship, but it would be safe to call their
relationship (on screen) chaste. Still, their bond is the core of
the film and both DiCaprio and Hammer pull it off better than expected.
Regrettably, the strength of their story is buried under what feels
likes a mess of exposition, meandering and random events without
sequence or rhythm. The editing in particular feels all over the map,
going from the young to old in the blink of an eye, advancing a
side-plot for old Hoover and jumping back to his younger days. It gets
confusing trying to keep track of the different tones, characters,
targets, etc. There are a couple of playful cuts thrown in to accentuate
Hoover and Tolson’s relationship, but they’re fleeting and still leave
the viewer spinning from the time (re)lapse.
The script itself is not a bomb, but neither is it particularly
polished — at least not until the last 30 minutes. There are a lot of
things Black and Hoover seem to want to say, but they say so much that
we lose sight of what the original message was, if it ever existed. The
inclusion of Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) makes sense
but at the same time gives Hoover a sort of creeper sense, like he’s
going to jump you with a knife in the shower while wearing “Mother’s”
clothes. It’s enough to make one cringe a touch whenever he says
“Mother” in the movie.
If you’re looking for a visual feast, you shouldn’t be watching a
Clint Eastwood film. Known for his darker gray tones, things are not
changing for J. Edgar: everything is as gray and layered as Hoover himself. Little is bright, much is hidden and the bright spots are
held onto by both characters and viewers alike. It’s not chipper, but
it’s unequivocally Eastwood.
In the end, J. Edgar is a good film, if a baiting one. No doubt
it will bring DiCaprio a nomination or two for his performance and with
good reason and Hammer arguably deserves a little love (in more ways than
one) as well. But in the end, there are too many plot holes, lazy
editing and a message that instead of being built throughout the film,
feels like it was pulled out of the sky. It picks itself up and dusts
itself off by the film’s end, once again thanks in part to the leading performances, but the final product feels less like a
fully realized vision and more like an actor’s exercise. Given the talent behind the camera, it shouldn’t too much to ask for something more coherent.
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench