J. Edgar Blu-ray ReviewFebruary 23, 2012
J. Edgar is a movie that wishes it had power and emphatic energy. It wishes that it had everything it needed to tackle one of the most enigmatic figures of the American justice system and, indeed, the American government as a whole in the 20th century.
Unfortunately, it doesn't.
At best, it's the 2012 version of "For Academy Consideration: Leonardo DiCaprio." At its worst, it's a jumbled mess of a movie with no focus, no drive, and (seemingly) no interest in its own story.
This is a movie with an excellent cast: the aforementioned DiCaprio in the titular role, along with Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas and Dame Judi Dench. And it was made by one of the greatest living directors in all of American cinema, Clint Eastwood.
It would seem that all of the pieces are in place for a bona fide classic in the making. What the filmmakers neglected to take into account, however, is a very simple fact: No one - literally no one - knows the real story of J. Edgar Hoover.
This could either work to the film's benefit or its detriment. On one hand, the freedom to fudge a fact here and there can make up for an otherwise humdrum tale. On the other hand, embellishing a fact here and a fact there diminishes the integrity of the piece and, by extension, its subject.
So what does J. Edgar do with this dilemma? It combines its best two options: The film embellishes a fact or two and remains a rather labored, uninteresting affair. In essence, this is the lesson that can be learned after seeing J.Edgar:
"J. Edgar Hoover was the controversial director of the FBI whose bureaucratic tactics ranged from unethical to unconstitutional in scope; he also may have been a closeted homosexual."
Not for nothing (and I'm just speaking for myself here), but I already knew that. I can get that from the man's Wikipedia page.
If I'm to watch a film about one of the most simultaneously reviled and revered men of the 20th century, then I want to know a thing or two about what made him tick. I want to know how the relationships in his life impacted his character, not just his career and his general dealings.
I want insight into why he chose to walk and sometimes flat-out cross the line between legal and illegal.
Instead, I'm given a flat, overwritten narrative full of unnecessary plot contrivances and which engenders no real interest in its subject matter. I found that I didn't care about the characters or their predicaments.
And the subplot which tackles Edgar's supposed homosexual affair with associate FBI director Clyde Tolson (played wonderfully by Armie Hammer), while it does contain the film's most interesting and emotionally-charged content, is included simply for the sake of including it.
It's a beat that's played brilliantly by both DiCaprio and Hammer but is simply not integral enough to the rest of the story to make it worth its trouble. J. Edgar puts me in the mind of a puzzle that, when completed, should present a beautiful picture - unfortunately, none of the pieces fit together.
Having said that, DiCaprio's performance as Hoover is absolutely top-notch and (that first paragraph joke notwithstanding) should have received a nomination - indeed, with a tighter, better-constructed story, he probably would've snuck in ahead of Mr. Pitt (hey, I loved Moneyball, too, but come on).
Leo tries, through sheer force of will, to make up for the lack of a story around him, but there's just not enough to work with.
Perhaps the greatest impediment for DiCaprio to overcome is the lack of a clear costar. The film presents three principal characters who serve as grounding for Hoover's larger-than-life occupation.
Watts plays his longtime secretary Helen Gandy, Dench portrays his mother, and we've already talked about Hammer's role as Tolson.
These are all characters who, if given the proper time and attention, could be considered Hoover's last remaining tie to humanity - the last vestige of a soul that belongs almost entirely to the bureau - wind up getting the short end of the stick, and we're left with a main character with no direction and in whom we can invest no real sympathy or interest.
In the end, all we're left with is a brilliant performance from DiCaprio, utterly wasted.
Finally, there's Mr. Eastwood.
It would be a lie to say that, on a technical level, this film was not well-directed. Indeed, it looks gorgeous and has been staged beautifully. But this never felt like a Clint Eastwood movie. It lacked the grit of Gran Torino, the rugged humanity of Unforgiven, and the redemptive notions of Million Dollar Baby.
Instead, it turned out as a biopic directed by Clint Eastwood - and, frankly, just about anybody could have directed this movie and done roughly the same job with it.
And that brings us to the greatest disappointment of the movie, and it's a borderline-heartbreaking truth:
It could have been great.
Warner Bros. brings J. Edgar to Blu-ray with a 1080p AVC encode that brings all of the details to life in a rich fashion. It isn't a particularly colorful film (which, I imagine is entirely by design), but the black levels and definition of all images is as sharp as any other Blu-ray you'll find out there.
And, while a clear, crisp image is never a bad thing, the less-than-stellar age makeup that's been applied to the cast is revealed in all its... what's the opposite of glory? Shame? Yeah, we'll go with that. It's revealed in all its shame.
As for the sound, the disc comes loaded with a DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix which is great for a dialogue-heavy movie. It also works well for the score (composed by Eastwood himself), which is deliberate and evokes a mood of mystery.
Beyond the Feature
The Blu-ray release of J. Edgar includes only one bonus feature, the mini-documentary 'J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.' The featurette runs 18:10 and is presented in 1080p with a Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track. And that's about the most interesting thing about it.
It features interviews with historians, Eastwood, Black, and DiCaprio, all of whom do little more than disseminate information that has already come across in the film - a little biography and historical context, but there's nothing much of interest.
There's a little insight into the subtext and characterization to be found here, but for the most part it's a regurgitation of the movie.
It's basically a 20-minute waste of time; there's nothing here you couldn't get out of the movie or on a History Channel special.
Which brings us full circle. This movie was an opportunity to shed a light on the mystery that was the life of J. Edgar Hoover.
And, if it couldn't find the facts to make that happen, it could've gone the Oliver Stone route - it could've just made them up.
In any case, this is a chapter in American history that was absolutely boiling over with potential for great drama. And, instead, despite a fantastic performance from its lead actor, it winds up as a colossal disappointment.
- Jason Jarman
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