Review: J. Edgar (2011)

By Jason McKiernan

J. Edgar fits right in with Clint Eastwood’s recent output of elegant, shadowy Oscar-bait pictures that don’t probe as deeply as they seem desperate to. For the better part of the last decade, the venerated American auteur has made a series of films that generally look and feel the same. They are steeped in dark shadows that obscure an otherwise stilted visual palette and scored with a lugubrious Eastwood-penned piano piece that is beautifully composed but jarring in the context of otherwise subtle cinematic moments.

At the same time, Eastwood seems increasingly preoccupied with the complexity of humanity, and J. Edgar speaks very clearly to that obsession as well. There is a richness to Eastwood’s intentions that is in direct conflict with the leaden nature of his aesthetic; he combines evocative content with an awkward, clunky presentation. The result is a film as infuriating as its subject…and its maker. J. Edgar is about a fierce conservative with an empathetic liberal buried deep inside. Eastwood’s humanism is tangible in this story, but his economical conservatism can’t allow him to expand outside the box of old-fashioned cinematic ideas.

Like most biopics, J. Edgar plays like a travelogue through the rich life of a historic figure, a Greatest Hits mix of the man’s most significant relationships, accomplishments, and moments. We are provided many examples of the infamous FBI director’s cutthroat, vindictive, rule-bending managerial style, glimpse a few of his run-ins with the Kennedy family, and follow his investigation of the historic Lindbergh kidnapping. The relatively linear approach to a full life’s worth of storytelling (even though the screenplay does jump back and forth on the timeline) often lends the narrative a rote inertia. Eastwood rarely finds a rhythm and there certainly isn’t much in the way of forward motion. But what helps the film as it moves along is what becomes its central thrust – a tender love story between J. Edgar Hoover and his longtime second-in-command, Clyde Tolson.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover as fierce and unbending on the surface, but tortured and weary on the inside. He firmly possesses his political ideals and carries them out with a sort of “patriotic paranoia,” second-guessing the loyalty of anyone who dares to question him. Yet in his private life, we see a Hoover with a warring soul, drawn toward personal tendencies that feel natural but are publicly scorned. Contrary to his forced interactions with women, Hoover is instantly drawn to Tolson (Armie Hammer), projecting that attraction onto Tolson’s job qualifications and ushering him into his exclusive FBI team in spite of Tolson’s seeming disinterest in the position. No matter – Hoover just wants to be in Tolson’s presence. The two begin what would become a lifelong friendship, one that is widely rumored to have been a romantic relationship.

Eastwood doesn’t shy away from the homosexual inferences – in fact, it becomes the primary text for the film’s latter half. Dustin Lance Black (Oscar winner for another bio-pic, Milk) wrote the screenplay, and he informs the relationship story with his own perspective as a gay man. J. Edgar starts as a fairly boring saga of Hoover’s rise to federal power, but evolves into a compelling tale of suppressed love against an intolerant backdrop. Not only must Hoover confront his own staunchly conservative views, which clearly conflict with his soulful longing for another man, but he also maintains undying loyalty to his mother (Judi Dench), who confides that she would rather have a dead son than a gay son. The simultaneous push of strict narrow-mindedness and pull of natural humanity becomes the tragic definition of Hoover’s life according to Eastwood and Black, adding shades of complexity to one of America’s most rigidly simplistic historical figures.

The notion of a star disappearing into a real-life character is the stuff Oscar nominations are made of, and DiCaprio will certainly continue that trend with this performance, which at first seems like a relatively easy impersonation but eventually becomes a fully-realized work of art, one of the great immersive performances I’ve seen in any recent biopic. DiCaprio embodies the full nature of Hoover in clear but subtle ways. By the end of the film, the audience no longer sees DiCaprio the actor, but Hoover the FBI Director. Hammer is also great as Tolson, who was as openly gay as one could be half a century ago, but who was also pressured to maintain his own professional respect, and whose love for J. Edgar didn’t prohibit him from holding the man accountable for his extreme tendencies. Unfortunately, all other characters are tertiary, and the presence of Dench, as well as Naomi Watts as Hoover’s lifelong assistant, Helen Gandy, are ultimately meaningless to the film.

J. Edgar gets stronger as it plays, as both Eastwood and DiCaprio find their footing once the Hoover-Tolson story is given room to breathe. Yet the film’s power is held in check by Eastwood himself, relying on standby techniques that now feel stilted and tired, often making the film feel like a slog. I feel the depth and emotion of these central characters, yet their full weight is not conveyed in a uniquely cinematic sense. Eastwood seems to be resting on his laurels, not allowing himself to dig deeper even though the content dictates he must. He is not unlike his titular character – yearning for complexity and empathy, but borne back into a very limiting set of standards.

57/100 - J. Edgar tells an intriguing and powerful story, but Clint Eastwood, like J. Edgar himself, seems reticent to fully embrace his natural tendencies, resulting in an infuriating, unsatisfying film.

Sr. Staff Film Critic & Awards Pundit: I married into the cult of cinema at a very young age - I wasn't of legal marriage age, but I didn't care. It has taken advantage of me and abused me many times. Yet I stay in this marriage because I'm obsessed and consumed. Don't try to save me -- I'm too far gone.