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J. Edgar Review: Life in a Vacuum

By Daniel Carlson | Film | November 10, 2011 |

By Daniel Carlson | Film | November 10, 2011 |

There’s a point in J. Edgar where FBI director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), who is dictating his memoirs to a junior agent, says that a story is made by its ending, and that deciding where to stop is what makes all the difference. Would that screenwriter Dustin Lance Black had heeded his own advice. Directed by Clint Eastwood at a pace somewhere just north of glacial, J. Edgar is a biopic so broad and by-the-numbers it’s impossible to reconcile its author as the man who penned the insightful and elegiac Milk a few years ago. What made Milk work so well was Black’s ability to focus on a part of his subject’s life and use those observations as an examination of one man’s impact on the world around him, then and now. J. Edgar, though, has all the delicacy and direction of an encyclopedia entry or middle-school book report, rattling off events in Hoover’s life with a passionless devotion that abandons focus in favor of some attempt at an all-encompassing look at his life, loves, and politics. Yet in trying to cover everything, the filmmakers come up with nothing. So many eras in Hoover’s tenure with the FBI, from its awkward formation to its days as a law enforcement powerhouse, would make for thrilling dramas capable of telling character-driven stories with real weight. Unfortunately, the film can’t make up its mind about whether it wants to follow an emotional or chronological path, veering wildly between impressionistic forays into broken relationships and ungainly recitations of fact flirting with gossip. There’s no real end point, much less a starting one. The whole thing’s just ladled out until you’ve had more than enough.

Part of the problem comes from Eastwood’s refusal (or inability?) to ground Hoover as a realistic character before bothering to explain why the movie’s about him. To a large degree, Eastwood expects Hoover’s role in pop culture to do the heavy lifting here, so that rather than frame him as a protagonist full of wants and fears, Eastwood can just barrel ahead with a story that lacks a beginning and skips right to a dull middle. I say “inability” because Eastwood, born in 1930, was only a generation or so behind Hoover, born on New Year’s Day of 1895. When Eastwood was getting started as an actor in the mid-1950s, Hoover was at the height of his power, entrenched in the Bureau he’d carved out of rock. Eastwood grew up with the name on his lips, as did everyone in that era, but Hoover’s been dead almost 40 years. He’s remembered more and more as a fuzzy punch line than a man who changed the nation, and Eastwood doesn’t quite do enough to bring him to life. He feels fake from the outset, especially barking out lines about wanting to “tell his side of the story” and record his life’s work. He’s a cartoon.

Making matters worse is the fact that DiCaprio, who brings a wonderfully nervous physicality to the younger Hoover, is handcuffed by the doughy, restrictive prosthetics and make-up worn in the character’s later years. When the film enters the first of its many lengthy flashbacks to chart the course of Hoover’s career, DiCaprio suddenly springs to life, unbound by the jowly mask and artificial gut that turn his work as the older Hoover into a kind of burlesque. (During a medical emergency late in the story, old Hoover yells for help, but DiCaprio’s mouth barely moves, hemmed in by rubber.) What’s more, DiCaprio’s northeastern mimicry of something like Hoover’s voice works fine when he’s playing a man in his 30s but becomes a great deal hokier when he deepens it and tries to force it to sound aged and haggard. You can’t help but get the feeling that a film that focused exclusively (or mostly so) on Hoover’s formative years would have let DiCaprio really shine.

Told as a series of flashbacks as Hoover recounts his life story, the film dutifully moves along through his early years with the Bureau of Investigation and his ascension to power as the group reformed as the FBI and agents gained the ability to make arrests and carry weapons. Hoover’s grand bravado and tendency toward speechifying make him a potentially wonderful satirical foil, and Eastwood manages to score a few thematic points by having Hoover’s object lessons reference modern geopolitical turmoil. (Easily the best of these is when the aging Hoover says to a young agent, “It may be hard for you to imagine today, but there was a time when Americans feared for their safety.”) Yet every time the story looks like it might be leading somewhere, anywhere, Eastwood releases that particular narrative thread and picks up another. Much of the film is also devoted to Hoover’s relationship with colleague and associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and the way their friendship worked on Hoover’s heart and forced him to confront his own repressed passions and the love he feels for men, or at least, for one man. Eastwood and Black’s Hoover is a man torn between wanting to honor himself and desperate to please his overbearing mother (Judi Dench), and there are some wonderful scenes in which DiCaprio is allowed to physically inhabit the pain of a lonely, friendless man who’s never able to feel comfortable with this world or his place in it. There’s a terrifying scene in which Hoover stammeringly tells his mother that he doesn’t like dancing because he doesn’t like dancing with women, and he prefers dancing with men, but she shuts him down by saying she’d rather have a dead son than a “daffodil.” These moments, when they come, hit hard. Yet just as suddenly, they’re gone, and more than that, their resonance doesn’t accrue over the course of the film. (Is it Hoover’s repression and fear that drive him to try and discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., as a philanderer? Or plain old race-based paranoia? Eastwood doesn’t bother worrying about it.) There’s no feeling of emotional continuity, merely scenes stacked against each other in something resembling order.

DiCaprio’s not given much to play off, either. Naomi Watts plays Helen Gandy, Hoover’s long-time secretary and the woman in charge of maintaining his secret files, but Watts is mostly reduced to answering a few phones and gritting her teeth when she’s yelled at. Similarly, Hammer plays Tolson as a hilariously broad version of a bachelor about town, stopping just shy of camp and winding up somewhere in the vicinity of unbelievably confident. They’re both, by the way, victims of the same gruesome make-up that plagues DiCaprio’s work. The elder Helen at least gets to make do with milky contacts and streaks of gray, while the aged Tolson looks, well, like Armie Hammer in chunk make-up.

The text and tone also hit a few wrong notes. Eastwood opts to color everything featuring a younger Hoover — something like 80% of the film — with a nauseous sepia tone that makes a major motion picture look like something cribbed from Instagram. Additionally, although the script finds some universal truths in moments of Hoover’s torment, too much of it hammers home its subtext as text. At one point, Hoover actually comes out and asks a friend, “Do I kill everything I love?” Considering that was kind of an underlying theme of the preceding two hours, I’ll make a wild guess and say yes, but it would have been nice for Eastwood to have relied on the show-not-tell rule and let the story do the talking. Together, the flat look and blunt dialogue drive home the feeling that the film is meant to check historical items off a list instead of weaving them into a narrative.

What’s ultimately so disappointing is how safe the film feels. This is a man who rode to power through the force of his own brutish will, and who held sway over federal law enforcement for four decades and eight presidents, yet the film never gets close to the cause or effect of that power. Eastwood eschews analysis in favor of rote observation, content to let the story unfold and wrap up with minimal fanfare. He doesn’t even make Hoover’s mystique the focus. He spends two and a half hours plumbing the depths of America in the 20th century and comes up empty-handed. As Hoover himself might say — this version of him, anyway — that may be fine, but that’s no story.

Daniel Carlson is the managing editor of Pajiba and a member of the Houston Film Critics Society and the Online Film Critics Society. He’s also a TV blogger for the Houston Press. He tweets more often than he should, and he blogs at Slowly Going Bald.