Clint Eastwood is generally a director you can trust to deliver a well made, no-fuss film with strong performances at its centre and real sense that you’ve got your money’s worth. With the exception of his last film, the overly sentimental Hereafter, Eastwood’s 21st century career as a director has been an impressive one, with Mystic River and Million Dollar Baby standing out in particular.
It’s a shame, then, that J. Edgar is such a wasted opportunity not just on Eastwood’s part but on that of the screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winner for Milk) and the primary cast, which includes Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench.
The film tells the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial founder of the FBI who was at the forefront of crime prevention for half a century. As well as looking at his career it also explores the idea of his purported closeted homosexuality and relationship with friend and co-worker Clyde Tolson.
At almost 140 minutes you’d expect the film to offer a substantial experience but for a film of its length it doesn’t really feel like it tells you all that much. Structured in flashback form, with the older J. Edgar dictating his life story for a book, the film frantically jumps around and never quite finds a focus. In their quest to be even handed about the titular man’s life and actions behind-closed-doors, Eastwood and Black’s biopic feels altogether too safe. This reserved approach does a disservice to a potentially shocking chronicling of the eponymous man’s life.
There are also several other problems with the film beyond that, not the least of which is the make-up. Normally such a matter would go unnoticed or unmentioned but this aspect is especially important in a film where so much is told when the characters are in their old age. The make-up is distracting instead of doing what it should do which is to make us believe these people are actually older. The problem is most noticeable with DiCaprio and Hammer, both of whom are so obviously caked in make-up and prosthetics to the point where it almost seems like a parody.
This issue leads into the acting problems, DiCaprio’s performance in particular. Although it seems silly to say because this is essentially what acting is but I never felt like I was watching J. Edgar Hoover but simply DiCaprio in heavy make-up and putting on an exaggerated voice. He is normally a fantastic actor in films like Catch Me If You Can, Shutter Island and Revolutionary Road, but his performance here was misjudged.
As a whole there’s just nothing exciting or particularly engaging about Eastwood’s life-spanning biopic. It doesn’t exactly help that the whole thing is adorned with a dreary, washed-out look making for a film that doesn’t transport you back in time but is simply uninteresting to look at. There are certainly things to like here including some intriguingly suggestive scenes exploring the relationship between Edgar and Tolson, and it’s undoubedtly interesting to see how the FBI was set up. But a baggy and confused narrative, off-putting make-up and bland visuals make J. Edgar an underwhelming and unmemorable experience from a usually first-rate director.
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