When director Clint Eastwood was filling J. Edgar with pitch perfect makeup, costumes and other accurate artwork, he forgot to add a story that would interest the audience or even keep them awake. This film is not the thrilling, incendiary biography of a great man, but is mostly ponderous and dull, with absolutely nothing to say in its two hours twenty minutes runtime.
J Edgar is a rambling and monotonous look at someone whom millions think of as an idol. The movie is supposed to be about J.Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, the legend who revolutionized crime fighting, but we don't learn a thing about him other than the fact that he was gay. Eastwood just tosses together randomly chosen events from Hoover’s life and gives us a series of fickle illustrations cobbled together by a slack narrative. To say the script is meandering is putting it mildly – writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) seems more intent on constantly shoving Hoover’s sexual orientation down our throats than telling his life story. And the effort to almost completely ignore Hoover’s achievements and controversies results in a film whose ideology is little more than pedestrian.
A great deal happens on the screen right from the opening scene, but very little of it makes sense as far as story or character development goes. The film fumbles along from chapter to chapter, forgoing necessary chronology and continuity in favor of past-present flitting. Yet, no segment actually delves into Hoover’s story, and every segment lags badly in tempo. Hoover made forensic and surveillance innovations for 48 years at the FBI - there’s so much great material for Eastwood to explore and it’s a pity that J Edgar flubs the opportunity by dumbing things down, continually sticking with Hoover’s homosexuality and imposing sentimentality.
Majority of the film focuses on the dynamics between Hoover and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). There are all too brief mentions of John Dillinger and Melvin Purvis, a half-baked retelling of the ‘crime of the century’ in which Charles Lindberg’s baby was murdered. The second half drags along to an ending that is as dreary as all that came before it. Hoover spent five decades indulging in controversies, which is longer than this film, although not by as much as you might hope. In a criminal waste of opportunity, Hoover’s issues of racism and solitary life are barely touched upon, nor is the Venona Project which he called as one of America’s greatest counterintelligence secrets locked in his office.
Eastwood surrounds himself with top-notch technicians – including cinematographer Tom Stern who has shot every Eastwood film since Blood Work. The production clearly involved months of research and meticulous design, and it is frustrating to note that the story of J Edgar is shrunk to a comparatively miniscule scale. Sian Grigg, the makeup artist does an extraordinary job as Leo DiCaprio turns into a dead ringer for Hoover, except for the familiar eyes. In every movie since 2002’s Catch Me if you Can, Leo has been demonstrating his ability to completely ingratiate himself with the viewer. In J Edgar you can practically see in Leo’s eyes that he has a fervent and extreme love for this biopic, and that he will be shattered by its failure. Naomi Watts as Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy, on the other hand, wears a shroud of imitation throughout and never shows any real emotion. Armie Hammer is decent but when in the prosthetics there is little to his character aside from being jarringly schmaltzy.
Edgar Hoover deserved a comprehensive full-length biography. It's a shame that J Edgar is such a mess when it could’ve thrown light on a most controversial figure, during a most interesting, transitional era in criminology and forensic science.
(First published in Mid Day)