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For the second year, I was fortunate to attend a world premiere gala at AFI. Last year I saw Black Swan, and this year I saw J. Edgar, a film directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for Best Original Screenplay in 2009 (Milk). J. Edgar boasts a huge cast, including Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, and Armie Hammer (The Social Network). The film follows the life of J. Edgar Hoover, the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover sought a war against gangsters, he influenced the implementation of forensics in criminal cases, his achievements in forensics affected the Lindbergh trial-of-the-century, and his warped views on Communism affected a generation. Also, he very well may have lived his entire life as a closeted gay man. A life this controversial and important to American history begs to be told on the big screen; yet, this is precisely why it is so very disappointing and surprising just how amateur, monotonous, and sluggish this film turned out to be.
Justin Lance Black’s screenplay for Milk is infused with energy and heart, as well as strife and sorrow. He truly deserved the win for best screenplay in 2009. J. Edgar, on the other hand, is a very different story. The first half of the movie is a laborious and puzzling affair. Heavy, seemingly never-ending voiceover acts like a random talking history textbook. Hoover also tells his life story in person to a young lawyer (or two) who takes it down for a memoir. This has nothing to do with J. Edgar the man, and, yet, the film cuts back to this same scenario several times. It comes off as a film school-esque plot device to tell more history, instead of showing it. Perhaps, Black wasn’t given much of a chance to revise, or, perhaps, he simply missed the mark and got lost. Either way, it seems that Black was too focused on telling J. Edgar’s forty-eight-year history with the FBI straight from a textbook or Wikipedia, instead of telling us a story about the man himself.
Director Clint Eastwood, a man who has achieved so much over his lifetime, unfortunately doesn’t do this film any favors with his J. Edgar vision or its execution. For possibly over half the film, the actors have been aged with good-old-fashioned makeup. This may have worked if it was simply done for a scene or two, but this is not the case, not by a long shot. DiCaprio looks OK aged, but the make up and the script stiffen his character. He has Hoover’s accent down, but that’s pretty much it. Armie Hammer looks like he belongs in a horror movie. While DiCaprio has some prosthetics on his face and Naomi Watts looks like her makeup has been executed solely with makeup tricks, Hammer is clearly wearing an entire prosthetic face. I guess it’s hard to make such a handsome man look 75. Still, that hardly seems like an adequate excuse. To his credit, Hammer is able to act through his monster mask in a couple scenes, but it simply is not enough to save this artistic choice. A set of elderly actors should have been cast for those scenes, instead of using this gimmick. Beyond that, the color scheme in this film is painful—beige, taupe, mauve, more beige, a little blue (thank goodness!); more beige.
The saddest thing about this film is the wall that separates the story from the audience. It has been erected thanks to the reasons mentioned above, and it really is a shame. This movie may look like it has some potential, but that is simply because J. Edgar is about a remarkable and controversial man. Hoover, in regards to his career choices, is a very unlikable character. This fact is not explored at all. It is simply stated superficially. The fact that Hoover was probably a closeted gay man is fascinating, and there is almost an interesting subplot about this aspect of his life. It simply is not enough, however, and for almost the entirety of the film, DiCaprio’s J. Edgar is bossing people around, taking a call, making a call, or talking about himself. The one thing he doesn’t do is act like the man he could have been.
Perhaps, if this film had focused solely on Hoover’s early life with the FBI—the formation of the FBI and the Lindbergh trial specifically—it could have been an interesting case study on his contributions to the last century. But, for some reason, the story chooses to jump forward in time constantly, to show Hoover illegally wiretapping famous figures, interacting with the Kennedys, interacting with Martin Luther King, just because he lived through the time period that they lived in. There’s just no rhyme or reason to most of the moments that are shown, and this poorly executed story borders on the annoying. There is barely any payoff at the end. Any twists to the story that could have been clever, and exposed Hoover in a way that could never be shown in a textbook, are lost under the weight of the rest of this film’s mistakes.
I’m looking forward to a future point in time when another filmmaker tries their hand at telling this man’s story.
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