Movie Review: “J. Edgar”

Written by Brent Holmes November 13, 2011

It is essentially a fact of life that Clint Eastwood makes damn good movies; this is not one of them.

Since he started directing and producing, Eastwood’s films have all been fairly solid films. They are not all great films but they are films that you can spend a fistful of dollars on and feel that you’ve gotten your money’s worth, which is more than can be said for 90% of mainstream Hollywood films. His most recent work J. Edgar hits a mark where on the Eastwood scale it is not as good as Changeling and not as bad as Hereafter.

It’s hard to hate the film on a structural level because Eastwood more or less does everything perfectly. The transitions between Hoover in the 1930s to 1960s are very well crafted with an elderly J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) entering an elevator in one era and then coming out young in the next.

The makeup, costumes, and attention to detail are very specific and do a good job of defining Hoover’s character. If you watch closely you will realize that Hoover had the same fireplace as Robert Kennedy installed in his office and during his interview with Tolson is wearing the same suit Tolson wore when Hoover met him. Unfortunately, to a large extent these very small details make up the deepest insights into Hoover’s character.

The performances are very strong. DiCaprio’s performance is pretty much the same kind of performance one can expect from him. Hammer is better in this film than he was in The Social Network. Naomi Watts disappears into her role as Hoover’s personal secretary, Helen Gandy, although is essentially nothing more than part of the scenery after the first half-hour.

The weakest performance of the bunch actually belongs to Judi Dench, who as Hoover’s mother isn’t given nearly enough material to make her character function. Is she supposed to be a domineering mother figure than turns Hoover into a crime-fighting Norman Bates or is she just supposed to be a part of Hoover’s unresolved Oedipus Complex? The film doesn’t say and unfortunately, it doesn’t say much else either.

The core problem with J. Edgar is that the film doesn’t make these calls. Clint Eastwood can make a good film, but it’s only as good as the script. Dustin Lance Black, who was responsible for the mediocre 2008 biopic about Harvey Milk has a very frustrating form for his writing. It’s clear that he is aiming for a perceived realism and a general acceptance of historical accuracy but his biography films play like a dramatized version of the biography channel. Any interpretations of Hoover or Milk is ignored in favour of producing a ‘safe’ film that doesn’t bring anything new to the discussion of their lives.

When you get down to it, Hoover was not a pleasant character. The film does not really tackle his sexuality, his paranoia, or his corruption. Granted, it does spend a the most time on Hoover’s sexuality, but it doesn’t use his sexuality to say anything. The brief snippets of Hoover dealing with JFK and MLK are short, very insignificant bits that do not acknowledge his corruption or his racism. Why Hoover has this very extreme view of crime is awkwardly not presented in the film and the film’s act of ignoring that is like a grown man being unable to accept a woman’s invitation to dance.

The difference between a good and mediocre biographical film can ultimately be summed up as the difference between films like Changeling, The Queen, and The King’s Speech against Milk and J. Edgar. The former group of films have a very clear set of themes that defined the characters; in the example set by The King’s Speech, it is a presentation of King George VI’s life through the lens of his value of duty to the nation over duty to himself. In the case of J. Edgar, it is the presentation of Hoover’s life through a fractured lenses of his struggling sexuality, obsession with crime, personal ideology leading towards corruption, paranoia, and social awkwardness. The result is a film that is both structurally and thematically fractured and without focus.

There are few brief moments in the film where one could infer that Richard Nixon’s paranoia is an evolution of the paranoia of J. Edgar Hoover. Does a country ruled by paranoid individuals become more paranoid? One could devote an entire film to the idea but instead we get an insufficient ten minutes that does not establish anything substantial.

J Edgar is essentially the best film in theaters right now. That is to say, Immortals and Jack & Jill are completely incapable of ever competing with the artistry of Clint Eastwood. However, it’s not one of Clint Eastwood’s better films. Most of the problems with J. Edgar are writing problems. Dustin Lance Black writes well enough but he needs to take a page from Beginners and write something beyond films where a character’s homosexuality is an ends, and rather use it as a means to deeper insight on the character.

My Rating: 6/10


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About Brent Holmes

Brent Holmes is a Film Studies and English Major attending Huron University College at the University of Western Ontario where he is working towards a PhD in Film Studies. He currently writes for We Eat Films and The Western Gazette (on the latter, he serves as Arts & Life editor).

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