© 2011 Ray Wong
FBI's most famous director, whose personal life was just as mysterious and intriguing as his professional, has often been subjects for the silver screen and pop culture. Clint Eastwood takes an interesting biographical approach to tell the story about the "most powerful man in the world."
Why is J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) the "most powerful man in the world"? He will tell you: because he knows everyone's secret. Even as a youth, Edgar is driven and focused and meticulous. He has sharp observational and analytical skills, and a talent to see through people. While fighting Communists, whom he considers the true evil that could bring down America, he quickly rises up the rank and becomes Director of the FBI before he is 30 years old.
Edgar's strict and iron-fisted approach to reshape and reorganize the FBI earns him both admiration and revilement. A complicated man, Edgar relishes the spotlight while he is sensitive to criticism, and when he's hurt, he lashes out. One of his ways of getting even and protecting himself is by digging up dirt on others, including the seven presidents he has served under. While outwardly a staunch moralist, Edgar is a man of contradiction and double standards. He exaggerates his own merits while belittling others for their shortcomings.
Behind closed door, however, Edgar's personal life is full of secrets that could easily ruin his reputation and end his career. He is a mama's boy, for example -- his devotion to his mother (Judi Dench) borders on codependency. I mean, he lives with his mother until he's way into middle-age. Strange for a man with so much power. He once pursued unsuccessful Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who later becomes his most trusted assistant. Most important, he hires Clyde Tolson as his "right hand man" (Arnie Hammer) even though he doesn't qualify for the job. The relationship between Edgar and Clyde suggests something more than professional.
Leonardo DiCapro (Inception) has played real people many times. He plays Hoover from his teenage years to his death at 77. For over 50 years, Hoover has held on to his post even under the harshest scrutiny. DiCaprio is able to portray the complicated man even though his effort is inconsistent. Surprisingly, he is most successful when playing Hoover at his old age, under layers of prosthetics and makeup. It's then that DiCapro disappears into his character. As a younger Hoover, he seems self-conscious at times.
It's mostly a one-man show, but the supporting cast is good as well. Naomi Watts (You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger) is marvelous as Helen Gandy. She plays Hoover's trusted assistant and confidant with grace and heart. Judi Dench (My Week with Marilyn) also shines as Edgar's doting mother. Through her strong performance, we understand her character's influence on our protagonist. Arnie Hammer (The Social Network) is the weak link here. As young Clyde Tolson, he is handsome and charming, and we can see why Edgar is smitten with him. However, Hammer falters when he plays Tolson as an old man.
The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) is almost episodic, alternating between past and present as the older Edgar contemplating his life while dictating his biography. The structure is rather disjointed and confusing, with multiple flashbacks but no time specified. So the audience has to deduce the plot and time line via dialogue or context. It's just too much work. The real problem with the story, however, is the lack of a real arc. It covers too much ground, and too much time, without a clear character arc. Mostly it's a "who is who" and "how things came to be" type of narrative. While it's interesting, the story lacks the dramatic oomph or a strong stake. We understand who drives J. Edgar -- his pride, his work, his personal desire and insecurity -- but none of that comes through with an urgency. Mostly, the screenplay feels flat. It's a shame since Black gave us the phenomenal, Oscar-winning screenplay of Milk.
Director Clint Eastwood (Hereafter) seems to have lost his touch as well. While the production is handsome and the period details are admirable, the pacing is off. The movie feels lethargic. I mean, this is a story of a man with great power, flair, and importance. A man who has served seven American presidents and carried on a secret homosexual affair for over 50 years. Yet his life story feels so lukewarm and flat. Much of the sentiments also feel forced. Perhaps I can't really blame Eastwood -- the flaws mostly lie in the writing. Still, I think Eastwood has made some mistakes and couldn't lift the movie from the material.
As a biopic about one of the most famous men in history, the movie falls flat, and it's not due to subpar performances or technical merits (the makeup and costumes are fantastic and should garner some Oscar nominations). J. Edgar himself would have hated it.
Stars: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Arnie Hammer
Director: Clint Eastwood
Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Distributor: Warner Bros.
MPAA Rating: R for brief strong language
Running Time: 137s minutes
Script - 6
Performance - 8
Direction - 7
Cinematography - 8
Music/Sound - 7
Editing - 7
Production - 8
Total - 7.5 out of 10.0