The crimes we are investigating aren't crimes, they are ideas.
Back in 2004, Martin Scorcese released The Aviator, a biopic about a larger-than-life, but enigmatic 20th century figure, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, while that movie was handsomely produced and impeccably acted, it failed to get inside the head of Howard Hughes.
Seven years later, Clint Eastwood releases J. Edgar, a biopic about a larger-than-life, but enigmatic 20th century figure, starring Leonardo DiCaprio. Unfortunately, while that movie was handsomely produced and impeccably acted, it failed to get inside the head of J. Edgar Hoover.
Seriously, when major directors are shooting biographical movies about major figures and failing to come to grips with their subject, it appears that their first instinct is to call DiCaprio’s agent.
Sadly, J. Edgar’s greatest sin is not its lack of insight into one of the United States’s most controversial public servants. The first failure may well be a poor choice of medium. Hoover’s professional life spanned so much American history and crossed paths with so many prominent figures, that a two-to-three hour film may be too small to do justice to the subject. This might call for one of those multi-night mini-series events with which the television networks can no longer be bothered.
Eastwood’s film touches on the major topics, such as Hoover’s surveillance of public figures and his secret files on almost everyone who could benefit him in some way, but never in any way that makes you feel like you learned something. His primary focuses, Hoover’s relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), his relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, never seem to gel into a cohesive whole.
In a way, Eastwood’s movie seems so focused on dancing around Tolson’s mostly unrequited gay crush on the Director, dispelling some rumors while embracing others, that it forgets this is part of a larger piece.
The worst failing is structural. J. Edgar is told mostly in flashback, as Hoover dictates a history of the FBI to a junior agent, from the earliest days of the Palmer Raids following the anarchist bombings of 1919, through the Lindbergh case. The story is true to Hoover’s self-aggrandizing point of view, which is to say, not true at all. It’s not until late in the film that Tolson calls Hoover on his bullshit, and we see the same stories play out, all too briefly, as they actually happened. While I believe that Eastwood was counting on his audience to know that Hoover wasn’t as intimately involved with the Bureau’s triumphs as he led people to believe, but after two hours of this misdirection, it feels like he’s been wasting our time and jerking our chain.
There’s no getting around the fact that the performances are peerless. DeCaprio disappears into Hoover (aided in some parts by some of the best age makeup I’ve seen), but Eastwood’s take on the story is like adapting Hamlet as an intimate romance between the titular prince and Horatio.