It’s easy to see how J. Edgar was one of my most anticipated films of 2011. It stars my favorite working actor, is directed by a living legend, and features a script by an Academy Award winning screenwriter. But who knew that those elements could combine to create something so…boring?
The film tracks the trajectory of the professional and personal life of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), the first director of the FBI, from the early days of his career in 1919 until his death in 1972. Hoover meets a young graduate named Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and even though he doesn’t fit the profile for a job on Hoover’s coveted new squad, Hoover brings him on anyway. See, Hoover’s been bullied into not accepting his homosexuality. Even his own mother (Judi Dench) says she’d rather have a dead son than a gay one. On a first date with a new woman at the Bureau (Naomi Watts), Hoover is so socially inept that she has to interrupt a proposal from him. She’s married to her work, she says, and Hoover brings her on as his personal secretary (a position she’ll have for the rest of her life). But he can’t help himself with Tolson, what with the young man’s booming voice and broad shoulders and all. Though things never get too sexual – check out another film that played at the AFI Film Festival this year, Steve McQueen’s Shame, if you’re looking for that – their relationship takes center stage as Hoover makes a name for himself and his department.
“Information is power,” an elderly Hoover dictates to one of numerous agents tasked with writing a book about him (the structure of the film is told from the old man’s point of view through flashbacks), and the film does add a tiny bit of complexity when dealing with the issues of how far Hoover is willing to go to keep his power in Washington, simultaneously commenting on the state of American politics and freedoms in a post-9/11 world. I wish more of those concepts were explored instead of what we are actually shown: a stale biopic about a tortured man whose private life was undoubtedly messed up, but was also, as the marketing hails, “the most powerful man in the world.”
There’s much made of the creation of the FBI and Hoover’s crusade to secure the adoption of the investigation techniques used in regular police work today. But since our modern media is saturated with a different CSI or NCIS show seemingly every night, the “magic” of the implementation of those tactics seems dull and uninteresting. The film doesn’t really help us out in this department: the centerpiece of the use of this technology surrounds the infamous Lindbergh baby case – specifically, agents studying wood from a ladder found outside the home the day of the kidnapping. Yep, you read that correctly – guys standing around in a lab analyzing a wooden ladder. Some movies may be able to make a scene like that interesting, but J. Edgar is not one of them.
Behind the camera, this is not the rough and tumble Eastwood I prefer. Instead, it’s as if adhering to his notoriously quick directing style – Fincher did 99 takes for the opening scene of The Social Network, while Eastwood prefers to do everything in one or two takes – became more important than the content of the film itself, rendering the movie completely devoid of any passion or personality. It could have been directed by anyone, and that was a big disappointment for me.
Another disappointment? This is not DiCaprio’s best work. More distracting than the heavy age makeup for me was his speech, as he adopts what one can only assume is an accurate representation of the way Hoover actually spoke. But accurate as it may be (or maybe it isn’t, how should I know?), DiCaprio’s delivery is brittle and jerky, with an accent sliding in and out depending on the scene. This is the same actor who received high praise for his South African accent in Blood Diamond, one of the most difficult accents to replicate. So I’m sure it was just a choice on his part in J. Edgar, but it was one that I could never quite get past as the movie progressed. Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts were both fine, but the monotonous script doesn’t allow them to live up to their potential and never gives them a true “moment” to make their own, save for a laughably over-the-top emotional outburst from Hammer seen in the trailers.
Sometimes the combination of some of the best talent in the business results in a misfire. In the blockbuster genre, take a look at Cowboys & Aliens from earlier this year: Jon Favreau, Harrison Ford, Daniel Craig, Damon Lindelof, Hawk Otsby, Mark Fergus, Alex Kurtzman, and Roberto Orci all had their hands in that pot, and it was pretty awful. If the nicest thing I can say about J. Edgar is that it’s the dramatic equivalent of Cowboys & Aliens…well, there’s that saying about “if you can’t say anything nice,” so maybe I shouldn’t have said anything at all. Until next time…