Conflicting approaches to storytelling sink fractured portrait
J. Edgar, the new biopic by Clint Eastwood, suffers from conflicting approaches to storytelling. Eastwood is a seasoned veteran who can churn out an emotionally rich, if slightly maudlin, story with military precision but zero genuine soul. Dustin Lance Black, the Academy Award winning writer of Milk, has a sharp voice and sharper wit to his frequently meta narrative structure. Together, the two voices clash against each other — creating a schizophrenic film whose embarrassing earnestness buts up against its genuine emotional honesty. The end result is a messy, if admirably structured, film with some great performances.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. A vain, paranoid and sexually conflicted man, Hoover had more enemies than friends during his time with the FBI. DiCaprio nicely captures the man’s passionate grasp for greatness. There was a conviction in J. Edgar’s actions — even if the tactics he used to protect his country were less than admirable.
J. Edgar is told in two periods of the subject’s life — his rise to power with the FBI and his struggle to retain that power as an aging man looking back at the shell of his life. As such, DiCaprio spends a good portion of the film buried under prosthetic make-up designed to age him into his 70s. Because of this, DiCaprio is forced to rely on his eyes to project his performance — something he is able to pull off remarkably well. There’s an intensity in DiCaprio’s eyes that allows him to emote even as his face resembles a leathery puppet.
Less able is DiCaprio’s co-star Armie Hammer. Burdened with some of the worst looking make-up effects used in film, Hammer’s performance as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s lifelong friend (and, perhaps, would be lover), during his twilight years gives the impression of a bad Saturday Night Live sketch. This is a shame as Hammer is otherwise a great actor and gives a remarkable performance as the confidant and stalwart companion to Hoover. Hammer hasn’t yet mastered the art of performing with just his eyes, though, and — when combined with terrible SFX work — he just doesn’t have what it takes to breathe life into the role of Tolson.
Likewise, Clint Eastwood doesn’t have what it takes to skirt the line between high camp and emotional honesty when exploring the relationship between Hoover and Tolson. Unfortunately, Eastwood has his actors play the roles too broad, too over the top and the result is a bit of a mess.
In contrast to Eastwood’s over-the-top direction is Black’s precision-targeted screenplay. Black does some really interesting things with the narrative structure — using Hoover’s dictation of his memoirs to comment on the screenplay itself and even expose the unreliable nature of its narrator. Driven by an overbearing mother to become the most important man in the country, Hoover strived to be recognized for his work and willfully distorted the facts to better reflect his role in the country — even as he sought to uncover the secrets being hidden by his contemporaries in the U.S. Government.
Where J. Edgar ultimately fails, though, is that the movie strives to grasp at too many aspects of its story and fails to give any one piece of the pie its proper due. The formation of the FBI and its development from a gunless squad of pencil pushers into the powerhouse it is today is almost entirely glossed over. Large portions of the film center on the FBI’s investigation into the Lindbergh baby’s disappearance and offer a peek at what could have been a great procedural drama on par with David Fincher’s Zodiac. In a biopic about a man who was only at the peripheral of the actual investigation, though, the scenes feel out of place and padded on.
J. Edgar wants to be too many different types of film and the conflicting storytelling tactics of its director and its writer only add on to the confusion. The film is grounded by some great acting but these performances are not enough to salvage the fractured portrait of a truly complex man.
Robert Saucedo is an avid movie watcher with seriously poor sleeping habits. The Mikey from Life cereal of film fans, Robert will watch just about anything — good, bad or ugly. He has written about film for newspapers, radio and online for the last 10 years. This has taken a toll on his sanity — of that you can be sure. Follow him on Twitter at @robsaucedo2500.