It seems like Clint Eastwood is bent on coming out with a new movie (or two) every fall. The darkened faces draped in heavy shadows seen throughout his films hint at the possibility of emotional grandeur. But as of late, with each over-hyped release an inescapable feeling of disappointment has been sure to follow. Unfortunately, “J. Edgar” continues this trend, forcing one to possibly reconsider the high acclaim that Eastwood has received in recent years.
As the title suggests, the film focuses on the life of one of the most powerful and despised men in history of the United States, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). “J. Edgar” chronicles the life of its titular character from start to finish, but not in that order. Instead, it takes a “Citizen Kane”-inspired approach to storytelling, jumping between Edgar’s formative years in the 1920s as an upstart in the United States Bureau of Investigation (preceding the establishment of the FBI) to his later days in the 1960s, where he’s portrayed as an out-of-touch old timer relaying his exaggerated memoirs to his ghostwriters.
Subplots develop between Hoover and the people that played major roles in his life. Most of this is done with the intention of creating a sympathetic character in Hoover, but it all only works with mixed results. The most important person in Edgar’s life becomes his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Their special relationship largely plays for some awkward laughs, until eventually succumbing to the cliche of a melodramatic emotional explosion. The always-creepy Judi Dench also makes an appearance as Edgar’s controlling yet loving mother, further deconstructing the tough guy Hoover that most of us are familiar with.
As always with Eastwood’s work, the performances by the lead and supporting cast stand out above most other elements of “J. Edgar,” including the period piece surroundings. Similar to the filmmakers of the studio era in Hollywood, Eastwood has come to be known for his highly efficient directing style, usually finishing films ahead of schedule, under budget, while still earning a profit (music to a Hollywood studio’s ears). Who else could shoot a film set in the 1920s and 1960s in just 39 days and for only $35 million? Unfortunately, the sloppiness in execution is apparent on-screen. From the distracting make-up to the lack of vitality in the settings, “J. Edgar” lacks the vision of similar films exploring the myth of American 20th-century giants.
Obvious comparisons can be drawn to Orson Welles’s “Citizen Kane” as well Martin Scorsese’s “The Aviator” (also starring Leonardo DiCaprio). All three films attempt to sift through the myths surrounding such enigmatic figures as William Randolph Hearst, Howard Hughes and of course J. Edgar Hoover. However, whereas the immense attention to detail permeates every frame of film in both “Kane” and “Aviator,” “J. Edgar” feels consciously unambitious. Just when the film begins to deeply explore its central character, it turns away from the subject matter. Instead, a more apt comparison would be to Danny DeVito’s 1992 biopic “Hoffa,” as both films borrow heavily from “Kane” without achieving the same result. Unfortunately, Eastwood appears to lack the vision that a project of such potential magnitude requires.