J. Edgar, 2011.
Directed by Clint Eastwood.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench and Naomi Watts.
The story of J. Edgar Hoover, who was the founder and head of the FBI for almost fifty years. The man with everyone else’s secrets must make sure his own aren’t revealed, otherwise everything he has worked for could be destroyed.
J. Edgar, the latest offering from Clint Eastwood, came out of the gate with a great start. A promising trailer, both because of the premise and the people involved, but it slowed down instantly afterwards. Gone are the days of Last Action Hero-levels of hubris and self-delusion from studios, meaning you can sometimes judge a movie by the advertising campaign. Sacrilege, I know, but why would a studio heavily promote a film unless it’s a guaranteed success? So was J. Edgar going to be a promising-idea-but-not-good-execution, or was it going to be a sleeper hit made by the A-list?
It is, unfortunately, one of Eastwood’s lesser productions. Like the pre-release build up, the film starts off well (explosions! intrigue! Jack from Titanic all grown up!) but it slows down, almost so you don’t notice, until it’s just pottering around like Hoover in his later years.
The big thing about the man behind the title is that he had so much information on so many different people that he became the most powerful man in America for a few decades. He was so good at hiding his secrets, in fact, that when coming to make this movie it turns out Hoover destroyed ninety nine percent of the paperwork he had. So the film has to tiptoe around the fact they can’t show anything the main character knows about these people, apart from the obvious (President Kennedy slept around? Who knew?). So we have a film about secrets and intrigue without showing much of either, because the filmmakers know as much as we do.
So, like the scene where Hoover unsuccessfully tries to ‘persuade’ someone to give up an award using a fictitious letter full of bluster but no real threat, the film is full of promise but no payoff.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black wrote Milk, the story of gay activist and politician Harvey Milk, and has taken on a story with both similarities and striking differences. Whilst Harvey Milk was controversial because he stood up and made a lot of noise, J. Edgar Hoover was controversial because he kept everything quiet, made people guess about him. The main difference and problem, boiled down, is that the film focuses on a man so secretive and notorious that the filmmakers don’t actually have anything concrete on him.
While it’s not the only good thing about this film, which I should really stop having a go at, the acting deserves a bit of special praise. Every character has his or her own arc, and each actor brings us in. DiCaprio looks almost the spitting image of Hoover and his performance is spot on. We care for the character, but we can also see how he’s not exactly well adjusted. Some characters aren’t treated as they should be though.
Hoover’s long-time companion Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer (the twins from The Social Network), has what could be an affecting character arc. The relationship has a few great scenes, but it all gets a bit wishy-washy when it comes to whether Hoover and Tolson stay together at the end. I knew the answer as to whether they stayed together in the end, that was obvious. It was just the ‘why’ aspect that eluded me. There seemed to be an explanation missing, so I didn’t know why Hoover was acting the way he did.
Hoover and Tolson must hide their obvious romantic affections for each other, mainly down to Hoover’s choices, which are shown to be down to the overriding influence of his mother Anne Marie (Judi Dench). Their relationship is summed up well by the story she tells Hoover about a local boy, with the nickname Daffy (‘short for Daffodil’), who shot himself. He’s used as an example because Anne Marie would rather have ‘a dead son than a daffodil for a son.’
While I wasn’t expecting summer blockbuster levels of bang crash wallop excitement, I was still surprised by the lack of oomph from the flow of the story. I thought the story switching back and forth from Hoover’s later years to earlier ones would give the flow a bit of energy and urgency, but it all happens in a slow, meandering sort of way.
I think this is the main problem with J. Edgar. It has great potential, a moving story just waiting to get out, but it all happens so slowly that there’s no urgency. The balance between getting excitement and wonder into a story about the man who founded the FBI and keeping the story slow enough that we can actually digest the actions and consequences each character must take part in hasn’t been achieved.
This means I didn’t care about the characters as much as I should. But don’t get me wrong. Looking back, I just seem to have pointed out the bad points and then said ‘the acting’s alright, I suppose’. The film was good enough to keep my attention and I did leave wishing it was just a little bit better. That’s a lot better than just leaving the cinema thinking ‘well that was boring, couldn’t he have made Inception II: The Streets instead of going for the Oscar?’ Even though he’s blatantly going for the Oscar.