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MOVIE REVIEW: J. Edgar

Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts and Armie Hammer

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Director Clint Eastwood tends to work rather quickly, taking a no-nonsense attitude toward the smaller details of performance and plot in many of his recent films. He’s been chastised for this method in the past, especially regarding the terrible performances by the non-professional actors in Gran Torino. At times, it seems like he doesn’t really care about the smaller issues of filmmaking, just the big ideas floating in the notes of his patented musical score.

Being a lifetime fan of Eastwood, I’ve never found his gunslinger shooting style particularly damning. That is until now. With J. Edgar, a bombastic and unabashedly Oscar-friendly biopic about the infamous FBI director, Eastwood revels in the skittishness of Dustin Lance Black’s manic screenplay, jumping from past to present and back again with little need for narrative structure.

The brunt of J. Edgar deals with a 15-year period in Hoover’s (Leonardo DiCaprio) career beginning with the 1919 Palmer Raids orchestrated to combat Communist radicals in Washington D.C. and spanning to the 1935 Lindbergh Kidnapping, a case Hoover obsessed over endlessly. These major professional bookends, along Hoover’s relationships with the extreme women in his life, namely a work-obsessed secretary (Naomi Watts) and his vindictive mother (Judi Dench), are jumbled together in a near-shapeless plot.

One moment Hoover could be begging his mother for her approval as a 22 year old, and the next he’s decades older dictating his memoirs to a subordinate sometime in the 1960’s. It’s not the jarring jumps in time that are so bothersome, but the fact these transitions seemingly happen for no thematic or aesthetic reason.

In the film’s unforgivably droll second half, Eastwood attempts to explore the hidden romantic relationship between Hoover and his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer.) Some critics have heralded the performances by DiCaprio and Hammer, yet I found their shared scenes repetitive and in one instance, hilariously melodramatic in the worst way. The fact that this coupling is so clumsy and unconvincing confirms J. Edgar as a completely inert drama.

The only aesthetic remnant from Eastwood’s golden period last decade is Tom Stern’s lush cinematography, beautiful period piece imagery that can't save the film from becoming a total mess. The rest of J. Edgar is made up of disjointed sequences of loud oration and blunt symbolism, confirming that the faux-nationalism of Invictus and sentimental mysticism of Hereafter were not flukes but foreshadowings of a master director no longer in need of nuance or subtext.