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Review: J. Edgar (2011)

J. Edgar (2011)

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Premise: A bio-pic about FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), dramatizing the trajectory of his career.

What Works: J. Edgar has some impressive editing techniques. The film skips back and forth between the early days of Hoover’s career and his final years, and the shifts from one time period another often employ clever directing choices. The film also has a pair of strong supporting performances by Naomi Watts as Helen Grandy, Hoover’s administrative assistant, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s confidant. Their performances are assisted by some impressive make up work that appropriately ages the actors.

What Doesn’t: J. Edgar is an uneven movie and there is a lot wrong with it. One of the film’s main flaws is a lack of focus. Something most stories have at their core is a central idea or theme. That idea or theme becomes the skeleton around which the rest of the story hangs; it gives the narrative a focus and by the end it ought to be clear what a filmmaker’s goal is in telling a story or, in this case, the filmmaker’s take on the subject of the film. This is especially important in a biographical picture, since there is so much possible material to pull from a person’s life, especially a historical figure with as rich and complicated a history as J. Edgar Hoover. The problem with J. Edgar is that there does not appear to be a theme or idea at the heart of the story. The events that the film dramatizes are not presented in any unified way. In fact, the leaps backward and forward in time are disruptive. The temporal shifts don’t appear to be cued by anything in the story; scenes aren’t juxtaposed together to create meaningful contrasts. As the film goes on, the structure gets more and more wobbly and about halfway through it seems as though screenwriter Dustin Lance Black is randomly selecting scenarios from Hoover’s life and jamming them into the timeline. Because there is no discernible narrative unified by a controlling idea, only a collection of anecdotes, the plot has no rising action and is not driving toward any climactic moment. The net result is a movie that is very boring. The structural problems of J. Edgar might be softened if there were something in the film to keep the audience’s attention but the film also suffers from its central performance by Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover. DiCaprio is generally a good actor but he does have certain limits to his range and this role is well outside of those bounds. Some of the problem may be DiCaprio’s presence as a movie star; he brings a lot of celebrity noise to his roles and it is especially distracting when he is in old age makeup. DiCaprio, delivering his lines with a New England accent that he never quite masters, does not change his voice from his scenes as a young man to his scenes as a senior citizen. That often undoes the work of the makeup and makes the performance—and much of the film—seem silly.

Bottom Line: J. Edgar is a big disappointment. Despite some impressive talent both in front and behind the camera, the film suffers from a script with too many elemental problems and a central performance that cannot carry the picture.

Episode: #368 (December 18, 2011)