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Lacking Depth

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J. Edgar
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts

MAMA’S BOY: Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar and Judi Dench as his mother in Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the FBI founder. Courtesy photo.

Historical biopics are often difficult propositions. The job of adapting an entire life into a two-hour movie must be a daunting task, let alone for a very well-known personality like J. Edgar Hoover. Director Clint Eastwood tries to tell the private story of a very public figure with decidedly mixed results.

I’ve never been a big fan of Clint Eastwood at the directing helm. He’s perfectly literate and functional but makes very thin populist entertainment. He lacks depth, dimension and subtlety. “J. Edgar” is a film that wants to expose the secret life of one of the most notorious figures of the 20th century, but the movie does little more than expose Eastwood’s flaws behind the camera.
People tend to like Eastwood’s work because he can get a reaction from an audience. Still, he does so by slowly tapping the same beat over again and turning up the intensity. He creates very moving, very singular moments; sure, they are emotionally powerful, but often they don’t make a lot of sense, thematically speaking.

“J. Edgar”’s mistakes are glaring from the film’s first moments. As soon as Leonardo DiCaprio shows up onscreen, playing the elderly Hoover in some truly awful old-age makeup, struggling with every line reading as he tries to capture the voice in an unflattering imitation, we know we’re in for a very rocky ride. Even the talent of an actor like DiCaprio can be buried beneath bad prosthetics and a forced accent. The scenes where he plays J. Edgar as a young and middle-aged man are far more bearable than the laughable elder moments. I don’t say this often, but casting DiCaprio was a bad choice. He’s totally wrong for the role—and this is coming from someone who found his take on Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” a revelation. DiCaprio’s a good actor in the wrong part. Where some actors manage to vanish in a role, DiCaprio murders his portrayal of Hoover like a high schooler trying to do a one-man show about Truman Capote.

The story follows Hoover’s life through his early years in the Department of Justice, fighting the scourge of the Communists through some of his more memorable cases, like Charles Lindbergh and the gangsters of the Great Depression. As the founder of the F.B.I., Hoover became famous for turning the agency from a powerless and mostly ceremonial organization to the most feared crime-fighting force in the country. It wasn’t only feared by criminals but by politicians and presidents alike. Hoover was an armchair tyrant who kept secret files on everyone. Those who disagreed with him or the actions of his office would be pinpointed, as he dug up all of their dirty little secrets.

Eastwood presents “J. Edgar” as a passionate, obsessive and dangerously patriotic man. Like many modern politicians, Hoover draped himself in the American flag and used “the good of the country” as an excuse to circumvent the civil liberties of citizens. He was deeply flawed—the kind of character movies are made for. But we never get to see anything other than the most threadbare portrayal of his life and events. Like most Eastwood films, we get one note of the man. There are slight attempts at explaining his motivations, but we never really get into his head. We learn that he was a mama’s boy and he lived to please her. There are implications about his sexuality, especially the relationship with his longtime associate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer;“The Social Network”). But they are the briefest of glimpses—innuendos but very little else.

One of the major flaws of the film is how much time is spent miring through the historical moments. The movie flip-flops between attempts at establishing Hoover’s historical relevance and pulling the curtain back to the more intimate moments. The historic parts are often handled with the movie biography’s most convenient cliché: the phone call. There are few cinematic devices I loathe more than “the phone call.” It’s always the same: A scene where the characters are engaged in a private moment, and right in the middle, before any resolution can be reached, the phone rings. Someone picks it up, and the audience hears something horribly dramatic. “The Lindbergh baby’s been kidnapped!” “The President’s been shot!” “Elvis Presley is thrusting his hips and sending teenage girls into a state of perpetual arousal!” After hearing the news, the actor looks shocked and slowly—ever so slowly—hangs up the phone. This device makes up at least 20 percent of the film. It’s so damn lazy—so tired.

The movie does manage to somewhat redeem itself after a rocky first act once Armie Hammer shows up. He manages to play a similarly conflicted character with much more grace and far less high-school theatrics than DiCaprio.

There are some solid moments in the film, but the back-and-forth flashback structure of the movie and the frustrating lack of depth makes it a moderate recommendation at best. It’s very easy to see what Eastwood was trying to do. He wanted to create the portrait of a man who wielded power from the comfort of a desk—the kind of person who demanded respect but so rarely gave it to anyone else. He barely is able to accomplish any of it. What we end up with is a very average, very messy film that never seems to give us a significant insight.

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