“Even today there are organizations that have America as their prime target. They would destroy the safety and happiness of every individual and thrust us into a condition of lawlessness and immorality that passes the imagination.”
The phrase could very easily describe the world we face today. The above quote could very well have come from a post-9/11 narration, but it didn’t. It was spoken nearly a century ago by the long-time director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover.
“Information is power. It protected us from the communists in 1919 and since has been vigilantly collected, organized and maintained by our FBI.”
A motion picture can also have great power, and in the hands of the likes of Clint Eastwood that power is usually wielded to a much greater degree than can be found in J. Edgar. It’s not like there aren’t some wonderful pieces in this puzzle of a story. Eastwood has proven himself to be one of the best directors of our time. He hasn’t had a bad acting career either. I usually await his films with much anticipation as I did this one. But with all of his skill and all of these incredible pieces, the movie is quite a bit of a letdown.
“When morals decline and good men do nothing, evil flourishes. Every citizen has a duty to learn of this that threatens his home, his children. A society uninterested and unwilling to learn from the past is doomed. We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard.”
Let’s examine those pieces. First the obvious. This is the story of one of the most powerful men in American history. He was there guiding the creation of the FBI from its early days as an unofficial investigation branch of the Justice Department. He built that branch into the modern crime-fighting unit it is today. He developed the idea of having investigators with college degrees. He started the world’s first crime lab. He initiated the centralization of a fingerprint database, and he was feared by even the 8 presidents whom he served under during his 50 years on the job. How can you not hit a homerun when you have all of that to work with in your title character? The film manages to quickly pass over these characteristics and accomplishments and refuses to find any kind of a focus. The story merely meanders in and out of time streams and serves as a caricature of the man himself as if it were a one-man stage production. It’s as if the man and his story were simply afterthoughts. Too much time is spent on the minutiae of his personal life with his mother and long-time associate Clyde Tolson, with whom Hoover has often been rumored to have had a homosexual relationship. It is these speculative relationships that dominate a film that could have generated far more drama and compelling intrigue with the things we can know more definitively about the man and his career.
I have to admit I was quite leery about having Leonardo DiCaprio play the title role. That fear was quickly dismissed when the movie started. DiCaprio actually turns in one of his best performances to date in the film. He can’t rely on his “pretty boy” reputation here, and he manages to show his critics that he really does have the acting chops to take on this kind of a role. I consider myself admonished. However, Eastwood doesn’t give him the meat here. Instead the story is told almost as an exaggerated remembrance so that there is never the kind of authority to the character that really needed to come out. The performer is almost always viewed in shadow. Partly, I’m sure, this was to hide the various levels of age makeup required for the role. There is also a feeling of sinister nature here that Eastwood would have been better served allowing his actor to bring it out. The style hurts the performance even if you can see the wonderful nuance and reality DiCaprio works so hard to bring out.
The supporting cast is just as strong. Hoover’s doting mother is played by M herself, Judi Dench. Naomi Watts provides wonderful chemistry in her role as Hoover’s long-time secretary and personal assistant Helen Gandy. It’s a new kind of role for Watts, and she completely immerses herself in the part. Not quite as effective is Armie Hammer in the role of Tolson. The terrible makeup has a lot to do with it. It’s also a rather ambiguously written character. Hammer can’t be faulted for the way his character almost intrudes upon the story. There is no chemistry between the two, and I find him terribly unbelievable throughout.
Finally, this is not an easy film to watch. Eastwood presents the story with too much movement in time that leaves us a bit confused at times to where we are. Normally, the age makeup might provide a clue if Hoover was not kept almost completely in shadow all of the time. The pacing suffers as a result, and it becomes a difficult task to invest your time, let alone your emotion, in the final product. Eastwood likely understands how difficult his task is, and he reminds me of the singer in a choir who lacks confidence and so sings quite softly to avoid actually being heard. Eastwood appears to invite his audience to keep their distance, always fearful that you might actually get a clear look at the film. It’s not a formula for success, and it was a predictable disappointment at the box office. It drew only $37 million on a $35 million budget, and over half of that came in the first two weeks. Skip it.
J. Edgar is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.40:1. The 1080p image is arrived at with an AVC MPEG-4 codec at an average 25 mbps. The problem with this high-definition image is how oppressively dark it is throughout. There is very little color and almost no opportunity for detail. While the image is quite sharp, you really only see that in close-ups. Even exterior scenes are completely devoid of sunlight. The days are always dreary and dark.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 is enough to bring out the dialog which drives the film. Eastwood’s scores are always light and subtle, so the sound presentation has to be good to pick all of that up. You do have that ability here.
J. Edgar – The Most Powerful Man In The World: (18:10) HD Cast and crew offer up biographical info and their own opinions and insights into the real figure.
It’s unfortunate that the writer admits to finding the character “indefensible”. He goes on to say that he attempted to recognize that villains don’t consider themselves villains, not realizing he’s being just as biased in that statement. I get the idea that Eastwood didn’t completely buy into the way Hoover is represented here, and there appears to be a philosophical clash between writer and director. That’s never a good thing, and the movie suffers all the more for it. There is no question that Hoover was a great man. There’s also no question that he was a corrupt man as well. The film could have served as a larger warning that “Even great men can be corrupted, can’t they?”