I knew going into the movie that the performances, aesthetic, tone, and style would all be solid and polished in true star-studded-Hollywood-biopic form, so I was hoping the film would avoid its genre's clichés and surpass my expectations. Sadly, it did not.
DiCaprio, sometimes wearing copious amounts of prosthetics, does a fine job embodying the father of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigations. His rigorous attitude and enthusiasm for order and justice comes across earnestly, though his performance often falls flat due to original writing material. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seeks to juxtapose J. Edgar Hoover's professional rigor, repressed homosexuality, and aggressive political and moral ideals, but just barely misses from completely synthesizing the character's essential condition. The intimate scenes are unfortunately trite, and many of his biopic storytelling devices are cliché.
Similarly, Eastwood's direction is unfocused. Like DiCaprio's performance and Black's writing, Eastwood presents an intriguing surface without giving us the true guts of what could be a compelling glimpse into the psyche of such a controversial American figure. Rather, it is reiteration of his desaturated aesthetic of late and romanticism of the American hero generation. There are a lot of furrowed brows and strong jaw-lines, but such imagery only amounts to content if given appropriate emotional context.
In J. Edgar those introspective stares, however, are mainly presentational and never felt. Eastwood knows his audience will understand what a quiet shot of DiCaprio thinking will mean, so deems it unnecessary to dramatically earn it.
Typically I enjoy a film without straightforward narrative and thematic structure, but J. Edgar plays as if it were didactic while still meandering around any real point. The film flashes between past and present, while Hoover dictates a history of his organization to younger typists in modern cut suits – his reactionary perspective illuminated in his disgust at the dirtiness of their handshakes.
Judi Dench plays Hoover's mother, a powerful woman who instills a sense of dramatic duty, patriotism, and heroism into her son. She is the core of Hoover's essential character drama. A lifelong bachelor, he yearns to gain his mother's respect by re-establishing the importance of the Hoover name.
Through her it is shown why Hoover is so power hungry and maniacally egotistical. She helps us understand his rigid ethical code and desire to bring morality to an immoral world. These morals soon become socially antiquated though, and Hoover has to paddle hard to keep afloat in a less and less predictable America.
Moments of thematic tension build as we watch Hoover try to catch the Lindbergh-baby kidnapper, reveal to Attorney General Robert Kennedy the sexual indiscretions of his brother President, and wire-tap Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. - but these various moments never amount to any cohesive character revelation. Even the most dramatic of scenes, including a sexually charged fist fight between Hoover and his life-long friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), feel less than honest.
At the end of the film, Eastwood presents a tender scene between Tolson and Hoover in which the entire history just presented is put in question. This is particularly interesting because the film plays almost like a History Channel recreation of Hoover's life, so to openly question the validity of his own story is a powerful move on Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black's behalf.
In the end, I must still give credit where credit is due and commend the production team for putting together a solid biopic, whether or not it is terrific cinema. If only they could have been a bit clearer with their motivation, J. Edgar could have been a success.
- Perry Allen
J. Edgar opens in theaters everywhere on Friday, November 11.