Fri 11 Nov 2011
J. Edgar Hoover left behind a well-known legacy. As the director of the FBI from its inception in 1935 until his death in 1972 (if that’s a spoiler to you I feel no guilt at all), Hoover spearheaded the advancements of forensic science and expanded the powers afforded to the Bureau over his tenure. How he did so is part of the controversy surrounding him. Whether it was blackmail, wire-tapping, secret files, or shrewd manipulation of public or political sentiment, Hoover was not a man to be challenged lightly. And now, director Clint Eastwood has decided to take a stab at presenting a feature film on Hoover, simply titled “J. Edgar”.
Enlisting Leonardo DiCaprio to fill the shoes of the former FBI director has only fanned the flames in regards to the hype machine surrounding the project. It’s no secret that I haven’t always been Leo’s biggest fan, but his performance is fine. The aging make-up is a mix of distracting and passable but unfortunately the budget seemed to focus more on him than one of the other key figures in the film, former Deputy Director of the FBI Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The mix of prosthetics and make-up on him looked more like one the masks you’d see in a “Mission:Impossible” film and I kept waiting for the reveal that it was really Tom Cruise underneath.
And then there are the women of the production. Portraying Hoover’s mother, Judi Dench provides the most solid performance, to no great surprise, though that isn’t saying much and it’s not something quite deserving enough to earn award nominations. Worse still, Naomi Watts’ inclusion, as Hoover’s longtime personal secretary Helen Gandy, at times seemed superfluous and at others, deeply central – just adding to the unfocused nature of the film – despite an also generally decent performance. With no explanation of why Hoover was able to trust her so implicitly after a botched attempt to date her, it made her loyalty to him a bit baffling, and almost like Eastwood only bothered to punch up the role because he needed more than two or three central characters to make a movie that spans 137 minutes.
Within that sometimes glacially paced runtime is over 50 years of Hoover’s life and as to the veracity of Dustin Lance Black’s script, there is no shortage of controversy. A quick Internet search brought up USA TODAY and NY Times articles refuting the core of Eastwood’s film. Heck, for giggles one could also look at Wikipedia’s page on the former FBI director. I’ll leave it up to you whom to believe.
Regardless of its faithfulness to verifiable evidence of Hoover’s character or sexual orientation, the bottom line is that Eastwood was unable to adequately mesh the two stories being told in the film. Is this a film about Hoover’s personal side, with the formation and expansion of the FBI as historical context? Or is this about the manner in which Hoover coveted power and used his desire to be important and revered to make the FBI what it is today, with his personal life thrown in to deliver context to his actions? Now, it’s not impossible to do both, but the manner in which Black and Eastwood handle the material is anything but the way to accomplish that notion.
Actually, while the film was playing, one notion popped into my head. This is “The Notebook” starring J. Edgar Hoover and one of the Winklevoss twins! That may sound harsh but being so melodramatically centered on the struggle Hoover had with his desires and watching Tolson act the love struck puppy dog made the comparison seem more and more apropos as the film unfolded.
Another element that was just one of many faux pas, whether it was due to a contractual stipulation or just plain laziness (and it’s hard to tell with this one), a scene shot at the Del Mar racetrack that’s supposed to take place well over 50 years ago makes sure to digitally remove the current backdrop of more modern homes but is littered with the 2011 blue and yellow diamond brand sported by the facility. It simply made me shake my head in disbelief and annoyance. I highly doubt an Eastwood film was so hard up for financing they needed to disregard historical accuracy in its production design.
J. Edgar Hoover is a significantly important 20th century figure in American history. This film somehow made me less interested in learning more about the man, which if anything is the saddest thing of all. The inconsistent make-up techniques, at times childish acting by Hammer, inexplicably focused inclusion of Hoover’s personal secretary, and Eastwood’s own score (which seems to be piano tapping he threw in for giggles rather than musical elements which suited the themes of the production), all add up to a bloated movie not worthy of the buzz surrounding it. It’s like this was a documentary, shot in real-time … only a number of the “facts” may be off precluding it from being a documentary and it feels like it takes longer than the 50 years being depicted before the end credits roll.
Much like his last three efforts, “Hereafter“, “Invictus” and “Gran Torino“, those who find Eastwood’s more recent work to be noteworthy appear to be doing so because of the director’s name and reputation alone. Sure, he’s made some truly impressive work … in the past. I was hopeful “J. Edgar” would break the streak but it’s merely a continuation of the same and I can only give it a 2 out of 5, with almost all of my admiration coming from certain technical aspects and watching how Hoover engineered the FBI from the ground up. Anyone interested in Hoover’s life is better off reading a biography and anyone interested in a well spent 2+ hours in a theater can surely do better – even by staying at home.