REVIEW: ‘J. Edgar.’ Clint Eastwood Makes Another Major-Statement Movie With a Lot of Minor Problems
Warner Bros. Pictures
At 81, director Clint Eastwood seems to make each new movie with the gusto of a guy who wants to go out on a high note. Forget winning Oscars -- with "Gran Torino," "Invictus," "Hereafter" and now "J. Edgar," his primary goal would appear to be putting together big, sweeping, emotional films that feel like Major Statements. He acts as if every film might be his last, so he'd better make it count and make it important. Unfortunately, "J. Edgar" bears all the same strengths and weaknesses as his recent work. There is much to admire, and there is much that makes you shake your head.
The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial head of the FBI as an old man in the late '60s and early '70s looking back on his career. Hoover is writing his memoirs, and the film traces back to the pivotal moments in the man's life, which include his investigation into the abduction of Charles Lindbergh's son and his tentative love affair with his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
With its backwards-looking structure, "J. Edgar" clearly wants to evoke a similar technique used in "Citizen Kane," another story about a powerful man undone by demons and an irreparable void in his heart. Additionally, Eastwood and "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seem to be taking a page from Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which tried to humanize a president many consider monstrous. These are grand, bold movies that "J. Edgar" calls to mind, but in keeping with Eastwood's style his film works on a large canvas but with a restrained tone. Even what could have been the film's most colorful elements -- Hoover's homosexuality and his cross-dressing -- are treated with a respectful tactfulness so as to judge this individual from a dispassionate, objective distance.
DiCaprio has played this sort of mythic American figure before in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," and in both cases his enduring manchild features -- even though he's about to turn 37 -- work to the benefit of the character, even while it deprives him of some gravitas and authority. What happens instead is that because DiCaprio looks too young to be such a towering presence -- not literally, since Hoover was a short man -- there's always an element of boyish insecurity that cuts through Hoover's every action, an important character detail in a movie about a self-conscious man constantly trying to prove himself to others.
Because of Eastwood's quick, no-nonsense shooting style, he's able to churn out movies at a much higher rate than his peers (especially at his age), but of late that approach has led to a predisposition toward on-the-nose dialogue and plots that can feel a little rushed or not entirely thought-through. While not fatal, both of these problems hamper "J. Edgar," which beyond being just a simple biopic also wants to be a commentary on how men in power can easily abuse their authority in the name of national security. "J. Edgar" ripples with post-9/11 commentary, and while some of it is rather obvious, the movie works best when it shows how Hoover's obsession with capturing lawbreakers began as a diligent, inventive emphasis on forensic science that was revolutionary in crime-fighting. Eastwood and DiCaprio do a good job of making that our entry point into the rising young man's essence, which makes his later fixation on Communists and Martin Luther King, Jr. all the more troubling for the audience.