Directed by Clint Eastwood
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Coming off his Oscar winning screenplay for the 2008 film Milk, Dustin Lance Black was a name to watch for future projects. So when he teamed up with Hollywood legend, both in front and behind the camera, Clint Eastwood, it piqued my interest in the project. When I also learned that it would be a bio pic on the famous FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, a man I have heard plenty about and yet know very little, I was furthered intrigued. And to cap everything off on the project, Leonardo DiCaprio, a favorite of mine, was cast in the lead. The massive amount of advertising, and the drab look of the trailer, had me weary going into the theater, but with everyone involved I had to at least give it a fair chance.
For those who don’t know, J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) was the long time director at the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Under his leadership, the FBI was transformed and became the famed task force it is today. Most of that was through the innovation, ambition, and power of its leader, Hoover. The consummate workaholic Hoover was denied by Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) early in his career, and soon became his secretary instead. He had no personal life but his business. His closest friend, Clyde Colson (Armie Hammer) developed out of a work relationship. Using the Charles Lindbergh kidnapping case as a springboard to his vision of the Bureau, Hoover transformed his country by bending the rules and seeking the truth as it pertained to maintaining the freedom he thought America afforded.
I would like to think that with this film, Oscar season has been opened. Many in the film community shun the ceremony as a glorified party of disappointment where the true best get looked over for the most bland best instead. I for one love Oscar season because with it comes some of Hollywood’s best films of the year, even if they may not measure up to some of my favorites from earlier in the year. J. Edgar is not that movie for me, but it will still garner Oscar attention. I just do not think it is Best Picture worthy. In fact, I found the film to be rather bland given the intriguing subject matter. For one, Leonardo DiCaprio is really good in the lead role. He is easily the best thing about the film, which is no surprise really. But from there, it gets less and less interesting.
Biopics are a strange business for a few reasons. People’s lives are vastly interesting, true, but too often they are too episodic and in the form of a film, it lacks flow and focus, two problems that find their way into this film. Eastwood and Black decide to intercut the complicated life of Hoover with his rise to success on the Lindbergh case. I cannot tell why they choose to focus on this one case, other than it appeared the most interesting one in his career. They also throw in all the fun rumors that surrounded Hoover including compiling dirt on America’s biggest political figures (Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy). There just does not seem to be any theme of focus which results in a sprawling film that never seems to amount to anything.
I was frankly disappointed by how criminally underused Naomi Watts and Judi Dench were, but that does not ruin the film. In fact nothing really ruins it, it just fails to ever rise to anything above a mediocre, straightforward presentation of the life of J. Edgar Hoover. As I said, DiCaprio was quite good, but the make-up was also top notch, transforming each of the actors to fit the age and era in which they were living. The same cannot be said of the cinematography however, which was far too drab and dark, ultimately making it a distraction as well. Hoover may have been a troubled, dark character, but taking it that far was too much. This film is far from what I would call a disaster, but it is also far from what I would call a great film, which is disappointing.