Warner Bros. // 2011 // 137 Minutes // Rated R
Reviewed by Judge Michael Rubino (Retired) // March 12th, 2012
The most powerful man in the world.
It's easy to see why Clint Eastwood would be attracted to a project like J. Edgar. Like many of the characters Eastwood portrayed, J. Edgar Hoover was the kind of law man who broke the rules to keep people safe. Unlike Harry Callahan or The Man With No Name, however, Hoover's power and thirst for justice led him down a path that few admire. He built an army of federal agents and revolutionized crime solving, and then allowed himself to be swallowed up by paranoia and egotism.
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, Shutter Island) was a man destined for power and greatness. This fast-talking son of a Senator saw firsthand the dangerous anarchy of the Bolsheviks that plagued America in the early 1910s. And he saw that these agents of war were still being treated as criminals by a powerless police force bound by city and state limits. He fought for a federal police bureau and soon started hunting down national criminals. Hoover expanded his number of recruits, developed the use of finger prints and forensic evidence, and began keeping files and wiretaps on just about every public figure in the country.
From his relationship with his longtime partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Social Network) to his devotion to his mother (Judi Dench, Casino Royale), Hoover kept his private life a well guarded secret. He was all-business as far as the public was concerned, which made the head of the FBI a deeply conflicted individual right up until his death in 1972.
The "character" of J. Edgar Hoover has had plenty of cameos in Hollywood over the years, popping in to arrest some criminal or command a fleet of G-Men in fedoras. It's a little surprising, then, to find a film chronicling his entire career so stuffy and dull. Clint Eastwood, directing from a script by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), can't seem to get out from under the ponderous weight of this influential fed.
One of the biggest problems with the film is evident in the first scene. J. Edgar Hoover sits behind his desk, dictating the memoirs that would drive much of the film. The camera hesitantly turns toward Leonardo DiCaprio's voice, revealing that the actor is wearing an old-man fat suit that looks about as real as one of Nicolas Cage's many wigs. The film's narrative does a lot of bouncing around through time (more on that in a minute), and so DiCaprio spends half of the movie in this ridiculous get-up. Then, when Arnie Hammer enters, as Clyde, wearing similar make-up but worse, it's hard to take any of Eastwood's ambitions seriously. I'm not sure why the make-up wasn't done digitally, a la The Curious Case of Benjamin Button (or even casting a second actor to play "old Hoover"), but anything would have been better than this.
Contributing to the make-up problem is DiCaprio himself. Leo is a fine actor, and surprisingly suited to star in period pieces like The Aviator, Titanic, and Shutter Island, but he's not fit for every role. His performance is often inspired and powerful, but I never really bought into him being Hoover. That's a challenge for any biographical film, and some pull it off better than others; when it doesn't work, it's hard for a movie to recover.
J. Edgar doesn't do itself any favors when it comes to a cohesive, clear narrative. Rather than just telling Hoover's life in a chronological fashion, Eastwood and Black fill the movie with inconsistent, layered, and, quite frankly, confusing flashbacks. Rather than focus on the development of finger printing, or Hoover's hunt for the Lindberg baby, the audience is told that this stuff is happening almost as quickly as DiCaprio spits out his lines. The film is stuck in a swamp of hallways and offices, and only occasionally breaks free into stunning period locales.
Eastwood is best when he's capturing the look and feel of an era with his own nostalgic eye -- an America he loves and misses. His camera work and direction are still above average, and the look of the film is often beautiful. It just doesn't make up for the boring slog of a narrative. Not even the creepy-yet-touching scenes between DiCaprio and Dench (who is fantastic, by the way), resonate with the sort of compassion I think we're supposed to feel. In the end, the film is just as cold as a textbook.
Warner Home Video's J. Edgar (Blu-ray) is something of a mixed blessing. It's probably the first post-HD movie I've seen that would be more realistic in standard definition. Thanks to the crisp 2.40:1/1080p high definition widescreen transfer, with its excellent color reproduction and fine detail, the make-up is nowhere as convincing as it should be. The digital backgrounds and period-specific establishing shots, however, look appropriately stunning. The DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio is adequate, although it only makes occasional use of the back channels (I caught a couple bullets whiz by at one point). The release also came with a standard definition DVD, a download code for UltraViolet streaming, and an 18-minute HD documentary called J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World.
J. Edgar is a dry, muddled historical film that carries with it a dramatic sense of entitlement. But it's not worth seeing, or necessarily caring about, by the simple virtue that it exists. Despite Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood's noteworthy efforts, the film's script and make-up keep it from being anything but a curiosity for history buffs. For everyone else, keep this in your "Don't Bother" file.
Review content copyright © 2012 Michael Rubino; Site layout and review format copyright © 1998 - 2015 HipClick Designs LLC
Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
* 2.40:1 Non-Anamorphic (1080p)
* DTS HD 5.1 Master Audio (English)
* Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround (French)
* English (SDH)
Running Time: 137 Minutes
Release Year: 2011
MPAA Rating: Rated R
* DVD Copy
* Digital Copy
* Official Site