Reflecting both the film’s target audience and the man at the helm (who we can all agree has seen better days), Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar opens with its titular protagonist (Leonardo DiCaprio), loose-skinned, prune-hued, and silver-haired, doing what people his age do: Ranting and raving. In his particular case it is about communism, which he describes as not a political party, but a disease bent on infecting every last American. Via a flashback, it’s revealed that his particular hate for the Reds (which was far spicier than the average Joe’s) ignited after a sect of radicals set off a series of bombs targeting cabinet members and senators. And upon realizing how investigators would just collect evidence found at the crime scene and dump into a bucket for disposal, it also inspired a passion for criminal science. Fortunately, the film spares the details of his less-than-eventful childhood, focusing rather on Hoover’s role as the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation of the United States (FBI), from the Palmer Raids (busts that occurred in November 1919 and January 1920 in attempt to arrest and deport anarchists) until his death in 1972. And seeing as it was scripted by Academy Award winner and LGBT rights activist Dustin Lance Black, the film is also an examination into Edgar’s alleged homosexuality and closeted relationship to Associate Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Despite a lot of potential and a grade-A budget ($35 million), there’s a few setbacks to note. Most embarrassing is the work by the effects and makeup crew who, using cheesy prosthetic makeup that glimmers with a glossy plastic finish, do an exceptionally unremarkable job aging DiCaprio and Hammer. But if you’ve been wondering why photos of a ripened Tolson haven’t surfaced months before release, it’s because the filmmakers managed to make him look less like an old man and more like a burn victim. And the performers are clearly uncomfortable in the extra maquillage. Plus it doesn’t help that half their acts consist of drawing out words, hammy quarrels, and moving with the finesse of a dying tortoise. Still, as far as aesthetics go, the sets are passable.
Another complaint that many critics (yes, believe it or not, there are other reviewers on the web) have had is with the “poor” lighting in J. Edgar. It is unreasonable, however, to assume that Eastwood, who has contributed to over a hundred productions, would make such a novice mistake (then again, he did contribute to the aforementioned mishaps). I believe it was intentional and that the dimmed coloration and focus on blacks and whites has artistic merit — noire-influenced visuals add a seedy atmosphere. And a showy leap of faith shouldn’t come as a surprise because lately Clint has been testing new waters with underwhelming results; his 2010 foray into the paranormal, Hereafter, bombed critically and financially, and his latest is just as stale. But the direction isn’t the one most at fault (although I prefer his earlier, far simpler projects, like Unforgiven and A Perfect World, or even later works such as Invictus and Letters from Iwo Jima), instead what dampens this biopic is its script, which molds a mishmash of themes (everything from sexuality to the Oedipus complex and obsession is explored here) around a paper-thin plot that never quite reaches a dramatic peak.
There must have been a rapid deterioration of the English language since the 1920s (this can be disputed but, for argument’s sake, let’s not) as the characters either sound like they’re reciting political pamphlets, or speaking exclusively in metaphors. Part of the problem is that, instead of getting to the crux of the issue, Black pummels his audience with scene-after-scene of monotonous dialogue. And much of the supporting characters — important roles such as fellow politicians and even his own mother, Annie (Judi Dench) — feel like they’re just counterpoint mouthpieces. The speculative storytelling and a narrative that shifts back and forth on the timeline too recklessly doesn’t help either. Unlike Milk, the last film Black penned, taut historical events are overlooked, as the script focuses more on soapy conspiracies, detaching the audience from both the characters and the facts behind them, ultimately making J. Edgar feel more like an article on Above Top Secret, rather than a movie heavily marketed as Oscar bait.