J. Edgar Directed by: Clint Eastwood Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench Running Time: 2 hrs 17 mins Rating: R Release Date: November 9, 2011 (Chicago)
PLOT: The story of patriot J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) and his rise to power in the growing FBI, as supported by his life-long colleague Clyde (Hammer).
WHO'S IT FOR?: Looking for clean-cut details on the life of J. Edgar Hoover? Good luck finding that, anywhere. But if you're looking for a biopic that proves its worth, its dramatic salt, and allows you to pick through this complicated life yourself, don't miss on J. Edgar. Fans of Leonardo DiCaprio, especially whenever he guns it for Oscar gold, should already be in line.
EXPECTATIONS: The combination of DiCaprio, Eastwood, and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black essentially spells out "Award Season Fodder." But, I was trusting that Eastwood and Co. would be more concerned with other matters than just giving DiCaprio enough "Oscar reel" speeches to earn him overdue praise.
Leonardo DiCaprio as John Edgar Hoover: This is a performance that calls attention to its mannerisms more than its depth. Here, DiCaprio has a lot of unique character traits to bring to screen, from Hoover's fast talking nervousness to his unique accent and continuous tenseness. Even on these grounds, however, this is a great turn from DiCaprio, even if he can't get us to look into his extremely f**ked up internals, and look beyond his impressive external. Score: 8
Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson: Working with the advantage of having only one big role before him (The Social Network) and not having to try to act his ass off, Hammer is extremely impressive in the role of Clyde, the man who would be Edgar's "#2" in life. Hammer maintains a very watchable presence in both the film's flashbacks and the present day scenes that require him to act past the heavy make-up. His depiction of old age is particularly convincing, as he presents frailties without once playing it up. His chemistry with DiCaprio is nearly incredible. In this year's most surprising role, Hammer provides a solid opposite to DiCaprio's sometimes ham. Score: 9
Judi Dench as Annie Hoover: Her time on-screen is limited, but her repressive influence is a looming cloud as the intimidating mother of J. Edgar. Dench has scenes in which she is a loving influence to her son, but she also has moments in which she's viciously insensitive, not offering tough love to her son, but maternally bullying him. Like Hammer, her bits are effortless. Score: 8
TALKING: In order to cram in as much story as possible, J. Edgar has a heavy usage of the voiceover, which is not as welcome as simply seeing such events ourselves. The movie's most emotional moments are treated with some sweet lines, some of which could be too cheesy were they not operating on the high power of the performances in J. Edgar. Score: 8
SIGHTS: Eastwood DP Tom Stern never fails to amaze with his work of shadows, which splits character's faces into darkness during the film's most impacting moments. As for the make-up, J. Edgar will also be up for a "Best Make-Up" Oscar for the work in which it successfully ages its characters without any hokey sense. Instead, it adds properly vulnerability to the characters, and adds a couple more dashes of Citizen Kane to the entirety of J. Edgar. Score: 8
SOUNDS: The J. Edgar soundtrack features classic recordings of romantic period tunes "My Blue Heaven," and "Red Sails in the Sunset," the latter heard at least a couple of times during the film. Forgoing the usual choice of coloring an entire film with one flexible melody, Eastwood gives moments in the film single notes to dwell on, but beautifully ties all of these notes together for the score's only moment of melody to make a uniting pivotal scene in J. Edgar even more powerful. Score: 8
BEST SCENE: While the chemistry between Edgar and Clyde always shows magnetism in any scene in which they are together, the final moment between the two in Clyde's kitchen might be the most effective.
ENDING: We're given a few text cards that offer an epilogue to the J. Edgar story, but we're still left with the mystery as to what is true about his story, and what is not.
QUESTIONS: Is this one of the better depictions of homosexuality in all of Hollywood? What other chapters from J. Edgar Hoover's life is this film missing?
REWATCHABILITY: J. Edgar certainly has replay value - it would probably be even better on a second viewing. I look forward to it.
Let's address the large elephant in drag in the room first: yes, J. Edgar could garner some gold from Oscar, or it could not. Either way, I don't think Eastwood gives a sh*t.
The story of Clyde and Edgar works so well because their chemistry is charged on such opposite personalities. And the two seem to also represent the types of filmmakers we have in the movies - those like DiCaprio's handling of Hoover, who fire off on all cylinders, including their back-up supply, to power up our attention, but instead remind us of their hunger for praise. But then there are filmmakers like Eastwood. He already has the praise under his belt from decades of acting and directing, and already has the entire approval of a whole studio for wherever he goes (Warner Bros. works for him now, basically), and brings a positive connotation to "breezy" filmmaking. This "breeziness" is mimicked by the feeling of Hammer's performance - whose work is more watchable than DiCaprio's roaring moments because it feels almost effortless. Just as we can be attentively disarmed by Hammer's handsome and pure presence, presenting himself as is, so can we be caught up with J. Edgar. It is a film made with Eastwood purity (that is, "no bullsh*t") that presents things as is. So much so, that even while observing elements of security and homosexuality, which would be ramped up for their modernity by almost anyone else, this movie's stance might as well be efficiently apolitical and asexual. J. Edgar is certainly from the same filmmaker who successfully made the supernatural Hereafter without even adding two cents concerning his own answers as to where we go when we die.
Such indifferent filmmaking is exactly what the challenging legacy of Hoover needs. Even when Eastwood indulges us in our curiosities of seeing Hoover in mother's dress, there isn't an ounce of manipulation in such a scene, despite the sequence's tragic context. Something that we've only seen before usually in a humorous setting, as a colleague pointed out, gets a functional and pure treatment with Eastwood's attitude. The same can be said for the "romance" at the center of the movie, which strikes at something even more personal than his previous attempt at showing difficult love, The Bridges of Madison County, which Eastwood even starred in. And yet, as Eastwood has said about this movie, turning down the volume on an aspect that makes J. Edgar the most special of all, which is the fact that he has so easily made a movie that doesn't downplay homosexuality, "It's not about two gay guys."
Regarding the search for any sort of message, Eastwood does find this story to be a solid fit of the recurring themes that have intrigued him in past films: the struggle to protect children (Changeling), the flaws of revered heroes, and their ultimate legacy (Flags of Our Fathers, etc). Eastwood particularly enjoys the legacy of J. Edgar Hoover, but leaves it up to us as to what we ultimately think about such a character. We are given entire monologues by DiCaprio's character regarding his beliefs and what he thinks are "The Facts," yet at the same time we are shown the other side of the coin; the many flaws that have made him such an unusual part of important American history, and certainly a complex non-fictional character worthy of such a biopic.
Eastwood's breeziness does not always prove beneficial to his audience. The introduction of J. Edgar himself is bumpy, as Leo's horse pill accent comes in immediate tow with many other large elements of the entire film that jar the focus of the audience, such as moving back and forth from flashbacks and voiceovers. Thankfully, the script ultimately proves itself to be more sophisticated with such flat storytelling techniques. The film works best when Eastwood's breeziness calms down - when it chooses a time period and lets whole chapters of Edgar's life speak, as it does during its fascinating second act, and heartbreaking third act.
FINAL SCORE: 8/10