Last night it was me and the old liberal Jewish brigade at the NY Times film club preview screening of J. Edgar, the new Clint Eastwood film starring Leonardo DiCaprio as the most powerful law enforcement figure in American History. Despite my pleas for most movies to trim the fat, this movie chronicles a 48 year FBI career, spanning eight presidents in an even two hours. And it feels too lean. The movie is certainly not bad, which would be nearly impossible given DiCaprio and Eastwood’s credentials. But it just isn’t the great movie I hoped it would be.
DiCaprio will certainly get an Oscar nomination for his performance, but unlike his Oscar performance in Blood Diamond, which I still think is his best, this is really an obvious Oscar grab. His portrayal of Hoover spans five decades so there is makeup, and fat suits and an accent and odd speaking cadence. In fact old Hoover looks like present day Jack Nicholson. It all spells Oscar nomination. Plus throw in the Brokeback Mountain element involving J Edgar’s long-standing relationship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer, known for playing the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network (I still think he deserved a nomination more than any actor in that film) and the odds of a DiCaprio nomination stand at 99%.
As much as I liked Hammer in The Social Network, something felt off with his performance in this movie. First off, in the older scenes, it appears all the efforts in good makeup were directed to DiCaprio. His older Hoover looks natural, but the old version of Tolson bears a resemblance to Dan Aykroyd in the 90s “comedy” Nothing But Trouble. Secondly, Hammer channels the same affluent air that combines smugness and decency that he carried so well in The Social Network, but in more emotional scenes with DiCaprio he appeared a bit awkward.
Of course one of the most intriguing elements of a story of a man who spent his life collecting secrets to blackmail people in power is that he had lifestyle that clearly could have been problematic for him. And yet it never seemed so much of an issue besides one emotional fight. The cowboys in Brokeback Mountain had more problems than Hoover, according to this film. That may have been the case, but it is hard to believe. The film does its best to portray the relationship as a long standing, powerful bond, but without a lot of the details of the relationship it is hard to feel as invested in it as you are supposed to.
What the movie does really well from a historical perspective is show why Hoover was both a vital figure in law enforcement development (his early encouragement of using science in police work, getting the FBI significant power, etc.) and such a villainous figure as well (his secret files that he used to blackmail political figures, his inflation of his own hands on legacy in apprehending criminals, and a particularly awful phone call to Bobby Kennedy).
And just one issue with Eastwood – why is the movie so fu*king dark? I don’t know if that is for film critics who will say, “the dark tones of the film evoke the shadiness of Hoover,” or “the film’s dark style helps draw out the classic eras it evokes,” or some other stuff, but I would have preferred a few more lights on set.
I enjoy biographies and I like biopics. And other than Lord of The Ring films, they are the only genre of film where I gladly watch long movies, as long as they provide a full picture of the subject’s life. That is why Malcolm X may be my favorite biopic. J Edgar hits on many of the significant pieces of Hoover’s professional life and gives the viewer a decent outline of his personal life. But in the end I would have preferred a bigger and more detailed film that could have delivered a fuller look at both sides of Hoover.
Final Grade – B/B+