Review in a Hurry: Leonardo DiCaprio wears a lot of old age makeup in Clint Eastwood‘s biopic about the man who ran the FBI for 48 years…and was rumored to be gay. The look feels genuine, the performances (if you can get past the bad makeup) are solid, but the story plays things too straight.
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The Bigger Picture: As one of the few conservative filmmakers in Hollywood, Eastwood should be a great fit for this material. Telling the tale of a man of who saw a threat to the nation at every corner (commies! mobsters!) and stopped at nothing to protect the U.S., it’s easy to connect the dots and see how the Patriot Act came into existence. But while there’s a lot that should feel urgent and relevant, the film just moves from event to event without any real examination of the politics.
That’s not to say that J. Edgar doesn’t talk about his politics all the time. Told mainly in flashbacks, a much older “J” recounts his life story to an endless array of young, attractive men (including Gossip Girl‘s Ed Westwick). They’ve been hired to write his biography. So there’s much telling about this wiretap on a president-elect or that raid on those Socialists, but they fail to engage in any worthwhile debate. Instead, scenes feel more akin to a laundry list of Edgar’s triumphs and failures.
The film’s highlight has J and his G-Men setting out to find the Lindberg baby. Hoover was one of the first to see the value in fingerprints and in not contaminating a crime scene, and witnessing the ways the Bureau changed how criminals were captured is compelling.
Along the way, the story focuses on J’s relationships with his longtime No. 2 Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and employee Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black—who won an Oscar for Milk—is earnest but clichéd. Did J have to be such a stereotypically closeted homosexual? He’s got mother issues, loves to wear good suits (and dresses!) and doesn’t “dance” with the ladies. His main partner through it all, both professionally and personally, is Tolson, who displays a real affection for him, and over the years a real sense of longing grows between them. Despite J’s terrible behavior toward him (to be fair, he’s awful to everyone except mommie dearest, Judi Dench) you do root for them to work it out. They simply can’t quit each other.
Leo, under all that makeup, imbues J with all the fire and frustration that he did as Howard Hughes in The Aviator. Once again though the script doesn’t afford the character of Hoover much insight. He’s a guy that got paranoid and stayed that way until the end. And that makeup! It’s hard not to think Leo didn’t tell the makeup artist “gimme the Charles Foster Kane!”
Eastwood’s direction is confident but removed. Even with a strong performance from Leo much of the story’s impact feels lessened. Hoover’s life was filled with a lot of drama, but too often it feels like Eastwood is pulling back when he should be delving deeper.
The 180—a Second Opinion: Of the many solid performances, Armie Hammer (The Social Network) is the standout. As Tolson, he makes us care for J even when we really shouldn’t.
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