A sprawling bio-pic about one of history's most controversial figures directed by Clint Eastwood and written by an Academy Award winner seems like it should be one of the year's best pictures. However, films like J. Edgar prove that this is why movies are watched before their success is speculated on.
J. Edgar Hoover was not a well-liked man, he was intensely private and let personal prejudices color his mind when enforcing law. Despite his contempt for authority, he outlasted eight presidents and made the FBI one of the most powerful institutions in the United States. A man of public outstanding morals, it is ironic the most lasting legacy of the man is that he was a rumored cross-dresser. Even that isn't verified.
This much secrecy leaves Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black in a tough spot trying to reveal some insight into a man that guarded. There isn't an issue inherent with dramatizing history, but when a film presents itself as an authoritative depiction of a man, audiences take issue.
Still, without a definitive portrait of the man, his story can be told through three very influential figures: Annie Hoover (Judi Dench), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).
His mother does her best to outdo Faye Dunaway as the worst film mother ever and Hoover's idiosyncrasies become all too clear. Later on in the film, when Hoover and Gandy go on a date, he spends his time showing her his prowess in cataloging. Their romantic relationship fizzles immediately, but she becomes his personal secretary for life. Hoover's introduction to Clyde seems to unfold in exactly the opposite fashion. Their romance is a subtle one and well-handled by the two talented leads.
Leonardo DiCaprio, buried under make-up, does his damnedest to give an accurate reflection of a man who no one really knew. A man so restrained, if he were to let loose, he may very well explode. DiCaprio finds a maintained balance between the vicious self-loathing that plagued Hoover, and the imposing image he presented to the world.
Objectivity is hard to achieve in film, but Eastwood's handling of the material does suggest an even-handedness that is appreciated when covering such a divisive figure.
As good as the performances are, there are a few curious choices. Cinematographer Tom Stern envelopes the film in a murky stain that lends a sense of ugliness to the picture. J. Edgar shifts between decades early and often, but without any real reason. For many biopics this could add some fresh air to the proceedings, but for this film, it adds nothing.
What is most frustrating about J. Edgar isn't the poor makeup and odd chronological deviations, but that they consistently kill any momentum that Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer's strong performances build.
**1/2 out of ****