Is it possible to, knowing a film cannot sum up a historical figure’s life, make enough of an artistic impression through layered dramatic representation to make a reductive but meaningful impact? Biopics are sticky material to work with, but with an understanding of creative license and severe necessary truncation, great films can come out of the form. On the other hand, disaster is sometimes inevitable, making the notion of Hollywood’s attempts to portray significant figures through the medium a joke to historians, film buffs and the general public. J. Edgar is an example where the industry comes off as children adorably attempting to write literature. This is an out-and-out turkey that fails to establish a modicum of interest, with some of the most amateurish filmic devices on display in recent memory. It is a bloated, empty, hollow bullet-point presentation with nothing to offer.
Where to begin? Dustin Lance Black’s (who penned Gus van Sant’s Milk) first-draft-like script is a travesty to behold. Every element is transparent beginners work. The framing device is forced, as Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) strains to secure his legacy by telling his story to many biographers and thus the audience. While we’re at it, let’s throw in some clumsy unreliable narrator gobbledygook. Yeah; that’s clever! We are subjected to seemingly endless voiceover narration and a major percentage of dialogue that purely serves as exposition. To boot, there is nothing to make us understand Hoover’s accomplishments and cruxes beyond information being meaninglessly thrown at us ad nauseum. Character flaws, themes and historical significance airily float around but never reach anything resembling gestation. To sum up; Hoover cherishes loyalty, presentation and efficiency, is severely repressed and has mommy issues that plague him throughout life. His actions are morally questionable; he is paranoid and has no problem hypocritically breaching privacy to feverishly protect his principles. He never really stopped being a child; there is your film.
All of this is displayed in a simultaneously hammered and hazy fashion. J. Edgar is all tell and zero show. How do we know Hoover cherishes loyalty? He tells us multiple times! How do we know his actions are morally questionable? In case we cannot discern this on our own, he is lectured at constantly by Clyde (Armie Hammer) and Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts) at every turn saying something to the effect of “Isn’t this illegal?” It pinpoints these focuses, boils them down to parodic simplicity and throws them at us again and again and again.
No momentum is built with the heavily episodic non-linear structure. A scene occurs, dialogue is said, things happen (or as is more the case, things are explained to us), either speechifying or sympathetic repressive moment ensues and we move on to another similar instance. Instead of linking together ideas and facets, headlines and factoids are played out with the depth of, well….headlines and factoids. That well-known presumption that Hoover dressed in drag culminates in a scene where he dresses in his mother’s clothes. Nothing is done with it; it is shown for its cliff notes impact as if to say, ‘see, we didn’t forget about the cross-dressing rumors’.
Eastwood and Black have no idea how to cover this man’s life. He has ideas but they just sit there, never going past basic existence. It plays out like a bland, astronomically reductive and uninformative history lesson that could have been better summarized with a paragraph of text in an outdated elementary-school history textbook.
The quality of Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is questionable. Sure, he is a dedicated performer and he tries his utmost to bring something to the material. But he is an amalgam of accents, speech patterns, speechifying and broad characterization. He uses those beady eyes that desperately cry out from within to good effect (he does get in some nice moments), but this is a performance that very much screams ‘acting’! There is not one moment that goes by where I became lost in the performance; it always registers as a failed ambitious showcase. One cannot help but feel the Oscar clambering going on by not just the film, but from DiCaprio in particular.
Collectively, the acting feels like kids playing dress-up and at times can be a little pathetic to witness. Naomi Watts is fine but wasted as longtime assistant Miss Helen Gandy whose character is present only because of her loyalty to Hoover. There’s that loyalty again. She appears in every other scene so Hoover can say ‘Miss Gandy’ for the three-hundredth time. In one scene he calls her Helen in an obvious indication that this is an important moment, so pay attention everyone.
Armie Hammer is the only one whose character comes through as professional and personal companion Clyde Tolson. His earnest unyielding devotion injects actual feeling into this story. He is even able to shine through at times through his embarrassing old-age makeup. Through no fault of his own, it is so poorly caked on it evokes the sorry display that is Joseph Cotton’s stiff grumbling elder Jedediah in Citizen Kane. And yet he falls into stagy theatrics during moments that threaten to undo any resonance he may have.
Even technically, J. Edgar falls short. Eastwood’s phoned-in monochromatic aesthetic only contributes to the flat line effect of the entire picture. The look is devoid of sensation or memorability. Eastwood’s score is also typically sparse; it becomes funny just how dully on cue those sluggish notes are. Oh, and the film takes itself more seriously than Hoover himself likely did, which is saying something.
What more can be said about this lumbering bore? J. Edgar is a total failure to the point where is offends me for existing. Likely too harsh for some, I just could not abide by its inflated self-importance and unashamed bastardization of history. It is two-and-a-half hours of Eastwood making excuses for the central figure. Certain scenes verge into laughable territory, particularly Hoover’s interactions with Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan) which are painful. This monotonous slog egregiously insists on telling and not showing through its overly serious gravity, slopped on characterization, rickety structure and palm face inducing transparency. Some have been able to find things to like about this film; as much as I wanted to, there was nothing here for me to grasp onto in a positive way. It desperately claws at the walls for relevance with absolutely no groundwork to do so. There will be others who can more specifically and analytically dissect where J. Edgar goes wrong; I am not the person for that job. But if someone could point me in the direction to a lauded biography of the man, I would be much obliged.