Review - J Edgar


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Review - J Edgar
Maybe it's time to retire Clint...
J. Edgar (2012)
Clint Eastwood
Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer
Release Date:
Age Rating:
From director Clint Eastwood comes a portrait of the ferocious founder and long time head of the FBI, stretching from his early years through the triumphs and disasters of his reign and his later life.

There’s no denying that Eastwood is a living legend – making an improbably well regarded move from star turns to self assured directing. He’s tackled a range of genres in his four decades and over thirty films and has made some outright classics, from spooky western High Plains Drifter to Mystic River and probable masterpiece Unforgiven. In recent years, he’s turned his eye increasing towards real life period stories in the double header of Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers and Changeling as well as Invictus and his latest follows in that vein.

J. Edgar sets out to profile the man in question through a story that touches on aspects of his life during almost 70 years. It would be a massive undertaking for a character with a sedate life path but J. Edgar Hoover accomplished a remarkable amount, even before he became head of the nascent FBI in the 1920s.

Inevitably, this leads to a rushed narrative, with an elderly Hoover dictating his story to a series of subordinates. After a life time of criticism, it’s the man’s chance to have the last word, to redress the balance in favour of his successes rather than his failures. For Hoover, it’s a matter of sorting the heroes from the villains and proving once and for all that, despite his methods, he got the job done.

It’s a reasonable enough goal for the character but it’s sadly not supported by a film which has trouble portraying it’s protagonist in anything resembling a sympathetic light. Even Hoover’s finer moments are tainted by the stain of his underhand dealings and all is overshadowed by the powerful effect of his mother.

Much will be made of the other part of the narrative which traces the relationship between Hoover and long time confidante Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It’s here that Eastwood and scribe Dustin Lance Black find the heart of the film, as a somewhat naïve, almost innocent bond grows between the two men. Hoover’s sexuality was, like the man himself, a complex thing and the tension between the demands of his mother (Judi Dench), his position of power and the very real affection he feels for Tolson provides some effective moments of drama.

Elsewhere, things are less assured, even dull. The film spends much time on the Lindberg kidnappings and brushes past more significant events, while barely engaging with Hoover’s late on interactions with powerful characters like Nixon and JFK. Pioneering developments in forensic science and the perfectly movie worthy promotion of the FBI through film, TV and comic books barely get a look in.

Still, it’s hard to argue with DiCaprio’s presence as J. Edgar Hoover. Even caked in increasing layers of slightly ridiculous makeup, he builds up a consistent character far removed from his own boyish good looks and makes you believe the tortured conflicts inside the man. It’s stirring stuff, save for a misjudged moment in the wake of a moment of tragedy. Dench is suitably overbearing while Naomi Watts does little to distinguish herself. And Hammer, moving on from his dual role in The Social Network, makes for an effective and sympathetic Tolson, chained to Hoover by his unwavering affection. In later years though the prosthetics get the better of him, leading to some laughable scenes of forced palsy and a face which resembles nothing so much as a half melted candle.

Eastwood paints the film in monotones with the help of cinematographer Tom Stern. The muted look is fitting for the story of a man unable to divorce himself from work but hardly makes for exciting viewing. The same goes for some infrequent but decidedly iffy CG, continuing Eastwood’s seeming indifference to the quality of his effects. But it's the lack of energy that ultimately kills the picture, a sedate pace too often slipping off into rambling, not far removed from the meandering stories of the elderly.

J. Edgar works best in its more intimate moments, with a measured look at a complex love story between two men who cannot consummate their feelings, for various reasons. The rest of the film stands in sharp relief as does the supposed portrait of Hoover himself, who remains, at the end, just as poorly defined as he was to begin with.

5 Stars
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