‘J. Edgar’ Review
Emotional moments and strong performances compensate for screenplay issues.
Clint Eastwood has been a prolific and busy director especially in the past few years, and now his teaming with Leonardo DiCaprio to tell the story of a very influential yet mysterious figure John Edgar Hoover is bound to raise eyebrows. But while Leo shines in an award-worthy portrayal of the main character and the film has some intense emotional aspects to it, it suffers from a weak narrative structure and awful make-up.
The film starts off in the early 1900’s and follows John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his ambition to create a system that would revolutionize the way law enforcement would work forever. His ideas to create a unified database through the use of fingerprinting and forensic analysis led to the founding of the FBI. But Hoover was a mysterious man in private, having a very strong relationship with his mother (Judi Dench) who he lived with until he was forty. The film follows the cases he solved along with his relationships with his assistant (Naomi Watts) and a very strong relationship with newcomer Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer).
The character of John Edgar Hoover is certainly a fascinating one and there’s a great story to tell with him about the founding and the early days of the FBI and how one man ended up shaping some of the technology that’s so instrumental in catching criminals today. But on the personal side, he was notorious for being a very controversial figure whose life was mostly shrouded in mystery. And to that effect, the movie definitely justifies its existence but the problem here is that the story isn’t told nearly as effectively as it could have.
Here’s the biggest problem with ‘J. Edgar’ – narrative structure. Instead of being a straight biopic about the man which would have been much more emotionally engaging to the audience, the film takes an odd approach to the narrative. We start off with Edgar in his old age narrating his life to a writer. We suddenly flash back into his narration and are introduced to the film. If only the film would have stopped right there and continued with the story, it would still have been very effective. However, the screenplay does the mis-step of constantly forwarding back to the present J. Edgar and spending way too much time in that storyline than the much more interesting backstory that’s waiting to be told. This totally takes the viewer out of the story and the constant shifting makes the viewer dis-attached. The present sequences of the film are bland and have almost nothing interesting that moves the plot forward which leads to boredom. If only the screenwriter would have decided to tell the story in the traditional manner, it would have led to a much stronger film in the end.
And it is the flashback sequences that make the film as strong as it is. We see Edgar as a determined young man who has a unique idea for forensic analysis and does research on other people’s crime scenes. We see his rise in the police department and how he gets promoted to assistant director thanks to his hard work. But most importantly, we see how clueless he is with females and never really had a real relationship in his life aside from his aging mother who he loved a lot. This emotional aspect of the film is hands-down the strongest element which not only leads to some very emotional and well-written scenes but also concludes with a hard-hitting and powerful scene that’s memorable to say the least. The second most important element is Edgar’s powerful relationship with Clyde Tolson and how Tolson is the only person he can ever trust and forms a strong relationship with him. There are homosexual undertones which could have been a risky affair, but they’re handled subtly and with a lot of class here by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black who previously also wrote ‘Milk’. There’s a pivotal blow-up scene between both of them that stands as one of the most memorable and powerful moments of the film. Another such moment is Edgar’s foolish proposal and the moments that follow. But even then, there are moments where the narrative just skips over and moves to years later and this forms a disconnect for the audience. This story would probably have been better told in a mini-series format and would be more effective that way since there’s clearly a lot to tell despite the overlong runtime of the film.
I’ve already mentioned why the present day segments of the film are weak and narratively awkward, but one of the main reasons those moments do not work is the awful make-up job the film has done. With millions of dollars in budgets, the film has such astoundingly bad make-up on almost all of its characters to make them look old that it completely takes you out of the movie and is extremely jarring at first. Leo gets probably the best of it yet it still looks freakishly amateur and not worthy of a film of this grandeur. In the end, it’s very clear that it’s Leo with some plastic make-up one and fails to convince one bit. But the most horrific one is the make-up on Arnie Hammer to make him look old. There’s a reason it was never revealed in the trailers – it’s extremely bad and almost makes the sequences look like comedy. And even Arnie Hammer is clearly uncomfortabe with it as he hams through those scenes and tries to overract to compensate which leads to some unintentionally hilarious moments. Which is a shame, because that one major scene of him in it was the only decent part of that storyline. I still cannot get my head around how this make-up got approved past the first day.
Performances are where the movie really shines. Leonardo DiCaprio gives one of the best performances of his career with his excellent portrayal of the reclusive John Edgar Hoover. He’s extremely intense in scenes that require this from him and isn’t afraid of taking risks like he does with a scene at the end of the film. It’s a powerhouse performance that is bound to get him Oscar recongition, although the chances for that would have been stronger in quality. Arnie Hammer also proves that he’s just more than the Winklewoss twins from ‘Social Network’ and gives a suitably strong perfomance here that only escalates as it goes on. Naomi Watts is unfortunately given next to nothing to do after the first quarter of the film but does a good job with what she has. Judi Dench is commanding as the mother as well.
‘J. Edgar’ scores in terms of some very emotional relationship moments and strong performances, which almost compensate for the weak time-shifting narrative that never lets the audience latch on to the characters. It’s a good film that could have been a classic with a few changes.