Biographical dramas about famous celebrities that base themselves around rumors rather than facts seem to be all the rage in Hollywood today with films like “My Week With Marilyn” and the Princess Dianna film “Caught In Flight” on the way. Clint Eastwood’s newest offering “J. Edgar” seems to follow suit and is a fresh perspective of a man whose personal life historians really know very little about. Directed from a strong screenplay by “Milk” writer Dustin Lance Black, Eastwood does a decent job of capturing some great performances on well-framed, but often incredibly dark, film. Leonardo DiCaprio gives a riveting performance as J. Edgar Hoover, who’s presented with a little bit of a Norman Bates mother complex as well as dealing with issues of being homo-repressed. Armie Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar’s partner in the office as well as secret love. However, despite the brilliant performances and strong screenplay I couldn’t help but feel that director Eastwood really held back with the way he put the final product together; thus resulting in a very plain and basic feeling film.
This review is very difficult for me to write because normally I’m extremely fond of Eastwood as a director, but with “J. Edgar” I feel that Eastwood was not completely comfortable with the material that he was handling. During the scenes regarding Hoover’s sexuality it’s painfully obvious that Eastwood was just really unsure of how far he wanted to push the subject. The intensity of emotional tension between Hoover and Tolson constantly seemed to walk up to the line and then suddenly back away just at that limit and I feel that this was a very poor decision for Eastwood to make. This decision made these scenes quite frustrating to watch and really just puts me off of this film. The film cuts back and forth through time showing Hoover’s past and his old age where we see that the majority of the film is being told through Hoover’s point of view as he tells his story to a typist. The cuts back and forth sometimes got a little blurred and confusing due to their sudden nature rather than a decent and well handled transition. Visually, the film had problems with being way too dark to the point where it became quite difficult to see what was going on during night-time scenes, but to have it even be so dark during indoor day-time scenes really hurts the films visual appeal and adds to viewer frustration.
If there is one thing about the film that I must absolutely praise, it’s the chemistry between Dame Judi Dench, who plays J. Edgar’s domineering mother, and DiCaprio. There were times I wouldn’t have been at all surprised if Dench launched herself across the room and just started slapping DiCaprio for no reason at all. The way Dench plays her character with such strength and self-assuredness makes her character extremely intimidating, yet when she’s soft you can feel the compassion she has for her son. It’s very easy to see how Hoover’s mother played such a crucial part of his life, as well as possibly being the root cause for whatever reason Hoover keeps his sexuality under such tight wraps. Armie Hammer by far surpassed every expectation I had for him in his role as Tolson even though he doesn’t get much screen-time, or speaking lines for that matter, but he really owns every single moment that he does actually show up. The range of emotion that his character allows him to play with seemed to give Hammer everything he needed to create a truly believable character. When Clyde’s heart breaks, your heart breaks and for an actor to be able to make that happen with nothing more than a look, I think that’s worthy of a best supporting actor nomination.
As for DiCaprio, I had a bit of a problem separating his performance as Howard Hughes in Scorcese’s “The Aviator” from his performance as Hoover. The only difference in these performances was that we saw his character age in “J. Edgar” with make-up that could’ve been done a lot better, I might add. He’s most likely going to get a nomination for this film, after all he’s playing a historical figure, gay, cross-dressing and old, but I really don’t think his performance was anywhere near as captivating as Hammer’s. Another thing I must point out is that Hammer actually made the effort to age his own voice when he was in the old man make-up but DiCaprio didn’t, he seemed to just have one, cure-all, J. Edgar voice.
The over-all final product that audiences are left with is a frustrating look at what could have been if Eastwood had truly given “J. Edgar” everything that we know he’s got. This is a long film that runs nearly two hours and twenty minutes and you feel each and every moment due to the quiet and subtle nature of the film. This subtleness would have been just fine had it not also been applied to how far Eastwood was willing to push the story. When dealing with this sort of material directors should not fear away and should instead embrace said material and run with it full-force so that the entire story can be realized to its complete emotional potential. Because Eastwood held back on this film, we’re left with yet another very plain, generic and sadly average biopic as well as a waste of writing and acting talent.
“J. Edgar” is now in theaters.
CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT: 7