Dir. Clint Eastwood
Aus Rating: M15+
Running Time: 137mins
Coming hot on the heals of the improbable box office success of Phyllida Lloyd’s The Iron Lady, J. Edgar takes a near identical flashback heavy approach to the life of Hoover, rather lazily played here by Leonardo DiCaprio, as an older, frail man looks back over his life. While it thankfully doesn’t use that terrible Margaret Thatcher biopic’s absurd ghost motif to get from one Wikipedia entry heading to the next, it does haphazardly jump around through time and space as if at whim with little thought as to how one memory leads to another. Why do the people in these sorts of films always have such perfectly linear, chronological memory?
As if the dour cinematography, lit seemingly only by low watt lamps and natural light filtered through grey skies, Eastwood’s twinkly jingle jangle score would certainly put a sour mood over the proceedings. Perhaps he is to be commended for eschewing the traditional overwrought John Williams type of music, but those same incessant piano keys getting stroked over and over again like some villainous cat is nigh on nauseating.
Of course, as tends to happen with films of this type, really interesting stuff is either glossed over or chucked out altogether. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (re-using his Milk structure to diminishing returns) appears to be trying to have it both ways, dotting the script with big grand moments of historical significance alongside small scenes between Edgar and his mother, played by Judi Dench on Autopilot, and his alleged lover and Associate FBI director, a wide-eyed Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson. Rarely complimenting each other in any way, I couldn’t help but suspect there was more interesting stuff to be said, especially since the private sequences are quite clearly just pulled out of thin air. Where was the public’s reaction to his private life? Where was the motivation behind the loyalty of Naomi Watts’ Helen Gandy? The list could go on and on. Meanwhile, a sequence addresses rumours of a fondness for cross-dressing is doesn’t feel like an organic part of the story at all, just merely tacked on for effect.
Too long, for sure, Eastwood and his editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach, could have made the near two and a half hour length much less unwieldy by cutting out the unnecessarily repetitive scenes of Hoover recounting his memoirs to an eager fellow FBI agent (who puts new meaning to the term “paper pusher”). As DiCaprio’s heavily made-up elderly Hoover extols blank cheque platitudes about democracy, freedom and the fine line between right and wrong, it’s hard not to find the eyes rolling (or, even worse, drooping). Featuring some downright frightening make-up work on Armie Hammer – looking like some scary pod person from whence an alien entity is soon to burst free – and some truly ridiculous political impersonation – Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon is just off the chart bad – gives J. Edgar an at times comical edge. Although I probably would have preferred some good ol’ fashioned hoots, Eastwood’s film is too much of a sad sack to let us even have that. The life of what the posters tell us is “the most powerful man in the world” has been filtered through so many sieves that it’s rendered dull. D-