THE AISLE SEAT - by Mike McGranaghan
To me, there are two kinds of big screen biographies: those that really put their subject's importance into perspective (Malcolm X, Milk, Ray) and those that simply feel like Cliffs Notes versions of someone's life (Hoffa, Alexander). Despite a wealth of talent in front of and behind the camera, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar falls into the latter category. You probably won't find a more fascinating subject than J. Edgar Hoover, yet Eastwood is poorly matched with the material. His low-key style works against Hoover's increasing intense personality. For a movie about a guy who was legendarily controversial, J. Edgar is surprisingly dull.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover as both a young and an old man. Cross-cutting between decades, we see Hoover as an upstart in the Bureau of Investigation (the Federal part was added later), where his dogged pursuit of criminals leads him to create a centralized database of fingerprints and adopt some of the earliest forensic techniques. He investigates the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, butts heads with Robert Kennedy, and dedicates himself to ridding the United States of those dreaded “radicals.” The older Hoover gets, the more bitter and conniving he becomes, even threatening to bring down Martin Luther King, Jr. with evidence of a sex scandal. Hoover is also self-serving, often taking credit for others' accomplishments and making himself seem more heroic to the public than he actually is.
All these events are, on their own, extraordinarily compelling, and J. Edgar certainly captures the breadth of things that happened during Hoover's career. At the same time, it rushes through most of these events, introducing them and giving a broad overview before moving on quickly to the next thing. That approach lends the picture more of a “greatest hits” feel, rather than the feeling of a comprehensive, vivid portrait of the man's life. There would have been two ways to circumvent this problem: make the movie longer so it could further explore the areas (which isn't a great option since it's already 137 minutes long), or pick one or two things to specifically focus on and just address the other stuff in passing. Trying to include it all prevents the film from gaining any real dramatic traction.
Additionally, time is spent speculating about Hoover's rumored homosexual relationship with agent Clyde Tolson (The Social Network's Armie Hammer). In fact, the film gives the two men a full-fledged subplot, showing them evolving from colleagues, to trusted companions, to...something else. I say “something else” because J. Edgar is surprisingly chaste in exploring this angle of Hoover's life. Perhaps that timidity exists because it's never been explicitly proven that his relationship with Tolson was romantic (although circumstantial evidence certainly seems to suggest it was). The most we see between them is a kiss, and even that is delivered in the least romantic of ways imaginable. Personally, I'd have liked to see more between them, whether it's historically provable or not. Hoover spends much of the movie – as he did much of life – being a son of a bitch; the scenes with Tolson are among the few things in J. Edgar that suggest an actual human underneath the self-righteous bluster. Unfortunately, details of their bond are depicted sketchily. We never get a sense of how their professional relationship tipped over into the personal. Maybe it's one of those things that just happened. We'll never know for sure, but the film could certainly have explored the subject in more depth without having to sacrifice the spontaneous or gradual nature of it.
J. Edgar does have some good qualities. DiCaprio and Hammer give generally good performances, as do Judi Dench and Josh Lucas as, respectively, Hoover's mother and Charles Lindbergh. (The great Naomi Watts is tragically wasted as Hoover's secretary.) The picture also has a visual appeal in the way it captures period detail. Individual scenes work well too, even if they don't always combine to make a greater whole.
But as I said at the start, Clint Eastwood seems like the wrong choice to direct Hoover's story. J. Edgar needs to grow more intense as its subject ages and clings ever more firmly to his distorted, often dangerous beliefs (and as his rumored cross-dressing comes into play). Eastwood's minimalist approach actually makes the film grow more tedious as it goes on. By the 90-minute mark, I was really starting to become impatient. J. Edgar Hoover's life and career were explosive enough to make for a riveting, provocative biopic. Sadly, this one isn't it.
( out of four)
J. Edgar arrives on DVD and in a Blu-Ray/DVD/UltraViolet combo pack on February 21.
Given that Eastwood isn't the type to self-analyze in an audio commentary, or reveal the stuff that didn't work via deleted scenes, the Blu-Ray features are unsurprisingly minimal. In fact, there's only one goodie on the disc, but it's really good. “J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World” is an 18-minute piece about the film's subject. Eastwood, DiCaprio, Watts, writer Dustin Lance Black, and others discuss the mysteries that continue to surround Hoover. They also offer personal theories about his relationship with Clyde Tolson. Hoover's contributions to law enforcement are lauded, while the reasons for his failings are explored. One commenter suggests that he was in power for so long that he began to lose perspective; the desire to maintain power, in other words, clouded his judgement. While filmmakers and actors may not seem the most likely candidates to discuss a historical figure, this feature makes it clear that everyone did their homework and tried to make J. Edgar a film that was fair to its subject.
Picture and sound quality on the Blu-Ray are excellent.
J. Edgar is rated R for some brief strong language. The running time is 2 hours and 17 minutes.
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