film review: J. Edgar (2011)

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J. Edgar poster, J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo Di CaprioI never knew that much about J. Edgar Hoover, beyond the fact that he was the Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and that he was rather controversial. That really was pretty much it.

In preparation for this film then, I decided to read up a bit. He was actually a fascinating character… you know, if you find paranoid cross-dressing egomaniacs fascinating. Or at least that’s how some of those who write history have drawn him.

If you get past that, he was instrumental in the creation of the FBI, having been appointed Director of its predecessing bureau in 1924. At the tender age of 29. Hmm… Ever feel like you should be doing more with your life? Hoover served in the capacity of Director for 48 years, through 8 different Presidents. He was a man who, not only revolutionised criminal investigation, but was so far reaching in politics that he shaped US history. Of course, that doesn’t preclude him being a paranoid cross-dressing egomaniac but… it does put a different spin on it. So, even though biopics aren’t really my thing, I was kind of looking forward to this one.

Pity. Because as biopics go, this one really doesn’t measure up to it’s subject.

I guess I was expecting to learn a bit more about J. Edgar. I thought it might bring this complex, ambitious character to life. Instead what I got was a dull, bloated half baked selection of his greatest hits. In, what looked like, plasticine.

Indeed I think the first mistake of this film was going down the flashback route. Or, more accurately, the “dictation of his memoirs” route. It’s a structure that serves to limit the scope of what is covered in the Hoover’s history. Arguably, this is the intent, we are seeing his version of the past. However it doesn’t necessarily make compelling viewing, it means that we can almost forgo any insight to be gained from these events…

No matter. This would be fine if it was interwoven with the story in the “present” day. History shapes the man as he shapes history… and all that. Unfortunately it’s not. The past events mostly peter out after the “Lindbergh Baby” case, the only event that significant time is spent on. This leaves almost 35 years that are barely touched. I’m pretty sure this wasn’t the most significant event in J. Edgar Hoover’s career. I understand the fact that they couldn’t cover every thing… fair enough. But they didn’t even focus on this as a way to parallel the stories. Plus, the constant skipping forward to the “present” day meant that the film never developed a coherent narrative to hang the character on.

It is, theoretically, a little more successful in building up a picture of the man through his relationship with his mother (played by Judi Dench) and his deputy, and supposed romantic life partner, Clyde Tolson. I say theoretically because there’s so much padding in the rest of the film that it’s hard to make out these core relationships clearly. However, yes, if you ignore large sections of the movie, these parts are almost worthwhile. The conclusions drawn are a little simplistic and obvious perhaps but, for the most part, interesting.

In my eyes though, the problems with the sagging structure and lifeless plot are insurmountable. This is a bad screenplay coupled with some lazy directorial choices. Yes, Dustin Lance Black and Clint Eastwood, this is your fault. This is not a good movie. Like Iron Lady last week, you wouldn’t know he was one of the most controversial figures in US history from this film… The scope of his influence is just not adequately dealt with at all.

It’s quite a shame because, aside from those massive issues, it’s decent. As unconvincing (read: horrendous) as the “later years” make up is, Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer (as Tolston) pull off reasonably strong, measured performances – except for in one scene where I laughed out loud, I blame the direction. Judi Dench as well is typically commanding in her role as Hoover’s mother. I like to assume she’s a lovely older lady when off camera, because there’s more than one film I’ve seen her in where she’s downright scary.

I also liked the colour palette. I take it as more a stylistic choice than a particular indicator of anything, but it looked good. The cinematography was otherwise unremarkable but I think it’s worth mentioning the things they didn’t f-k up in this film.

Speaking of things they f-d up… I would be remiss if I didn’t talk a little more about the make up. I know I’ve already said it was horrendous but I’m not sure that gives proper dues to exactly how awful it is. It’s bizarre. Seriously bizarre. Naomi Watts, as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s long standing secretary, comes away the best out of it. It helps, I suppose, that she’s that bit older than DiCaprio and Hammer, but she still looks… odd. DiCaprio’s only seems acceptable when you see Armie Hammer. Poor Armie Hammer. What did they do to you? There’s 46 years in the age difference between Hammer and the character they have him playing. They should have just got someone else, and spent a bit more money on DiCaprio’s latex face. And fat suit.

The one thing that rests a little uncomfortably with me is that… well… It’s the same problem I have with biopics in general. I can never reconcile with myself whether we’re supposed to believe them or not. After a biopic I always feel like I have to go out and find all the facts, read the true story. Which is, of course, often impossible when it comes to historical figures. Films have a power over people, when you see something you believe it’s true. The Usual Suspects is a prime example of this. I do wonder if that means that there should be a certain responsiblity on the part of the film-makers… There can’t be really, after all movies are for entertainment. But… I just hope that people don’t believe everything they see. Even though it’s up on a big screen.

Anyway, that is unimportant. What is important is that I can’t, in any good faith, recommend you see this. Even though I hated Haywire – also out this week – at least you’ll see some ass-kicking in it. There’s no such amusement to be had with J. Edgar. It’s 137 minutes long… and you feel every one of them.


1 Comment

  1. comment-avatar
    JamesApril 1, 2012 - 1:44 am

    As a biopic on a man I knew little about I found it quite interesting…maybe the film just mirrored the fact that J.Edgar was really a bit “dull, bloated and half baked.”

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