Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Produced by: Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio
Music by: Clint Eastwood
Cinematography by: Tom Stern
Editing by: Joel Cox
Gary D. Roach
Studio(s): Imagine Entertainment
Distributed by: Warner Bros. Pictures
Release date(s): November 11, 2011 (United States)
January 20, 2012 (United Kingdom)
Running time: 137 minutes
Country: United States
Production budget: $35 million
Box office revenue (as of publication): $57, 348, 620
"I love it when a plan comes together." You know you're starting to run out of bright ideas when you start quoting Hannibal Smith from The A-Team as a starting point for your movie reviews. I've just been to the cinema to see Mission Impossible - Ghost Protocol, and needless to say I have a lot of strong opinions regarding the picture. What side the stick falls on, is up to God. Well, before I (as an agnostic atheist) start getting accused of blasphemy, I may as well wrap this preamble up with the traditional "keep your eyes posted!"
So, here we have the second in our biopic double-bill (though of course The Iron Lady is so up itself that people involved claim it not to be a biopic), Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar. For those of you who don't know, I am a massive Clint Eastwood fan, both in the acting and directorial capacity. I have been unfortunate to miss his most recent films, Invictus and Hereafter, I loved his 'other' 2008 film (Gran Torino having been released months later) Changeling, a highly underrated film which is one the best movies of the 2000s, with an extraordinary central performance from Angelina Jolie and is easily up there alongside Unforgiven as one of Eastwood's best films. Also, I think very highly of Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who I feel gets rather unfairly slagged, as he has proven himself time and again to be a great actor. DiCaprio plays the eponymous J. Edgar Hoover, who was the director of the FBI and it's predecessor, the Bureau of Investigation. Following two separate storylines in the same manner of The Iron Lady, it depicts his rise to power from the Palmer Raids onwards, but is also an examination of his private and relationships, particularly those with his mother (Judi Dench) and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
So, to start off with what is good about J. Edgar, I must congratulate Leonardo DiCaprio for his terrific performance as Hoover. He looks to have put on a bit of "solid weight" to play the part, and carries himself rather heavily. Also, he has Hoover's voice nailed down to a tee. Furthermore, as far as showing his emotions, DiCaprio shows, very subtly, a man who is not able to express to anyone else his feelings, and gives Hoover a genuine sense of sense of tragedy in his portrayal of him as inherently awkward and lacking in confidence. Also, Armie Hammer is very good as Clyde Tolson. Far from coming across as Hoover's metaphorical punchbag, Hammer delivers a three-dimensional performance that gives believability to his presence as the character who says everything that Hoover cannot. Also, he is thoroughly charming and charismatic, and as such you can understand Hoover's infatuation with his Clyde Tolson. Another element that works well, whenever it keeps it's focus, is Dustin Lance Black's script. When he really gets down working on the characters, Black's approach is humanistic and touching. He has a great feeling for dialogue, in that the characters get across their point and true meanings, while the veil of public politeness ensures they don't outright say it in a Basil Exposition manner. This is a nice element to the film, especially when one of the film's central themes focuses on Hoover's public image being a case of smoke and mirrors. Also, I think the film has a well-established mise-en-scene. The costumes and the production design entrench the audience into the various settings over the course of the fifty-odd years the film encompasses. Finally, Clint Eastwood is one of those directors who could make a decent film with his eyes closed, so it is no surprise that his efficiency comes through in the final product.
That said, with these numerous plusses, I found myself irritated by J. Edgar, in that I got to see what the film really should have been, but I had this bounced off of the film's messier aspects. As mentioned, Black's script is good when it maintains it's focus. It's unfortunate that it takes roughly an hour for J. Edgar to gain that focus. The central problem is the dual narrative. The elderly Hoover dictates to his biographer, and the story will go, a la flashback, into his memories. However, between these memories, as opposed to using this as a narrative structural device, we are constantly interrupted for the first hour by the elderly Hoover storyline, as though the young and elderly Hoover are both jockeying for pole position in their own movie. As such, it takes a long time to get into the movie, and I only got into the film when it decided to scrap the elderly Hoover story for an extended period and focus on the story that Black so obviously wished to tell. Also, Tom Stern, normally a terrific DP with a real eye for storytelling, poorly lights the film, so as to obscure the film's mise-en-scene. I don't know if he was attempting to give the movie a film noir look, but frankly there were large sections of the film were I was squinting to try and see what was going on. It would work for black-and-white photography, but for full-colour digital photography, it just doesn't. Watching these visuals would lead you to believe it was a different man who so beautifully lit and shot Changeling, a film interestingly set in roughly the same period as J. Edgar. Finally, much as I love Clint, I feel that as a director/auteur, he has made some poor decisions this time round. Most notable is the inclusion of a J. Edgar Hoover narration. Now, I like DiCaprio's performance and voice as Hoover, but having him also narrate the film is overbearing and is like having Charles Foster Kane booming through the speakers at you. Couple this with Eastwood's score, which I normally find to be the most understated part of his films but here found irritating, and you have a film that doesn't leave a whole lot of room to breath.
Now, don't get me wrong, J. Edgar is a flawed film. It has a troublesome narrative inconsistency, cinematography that threatens to make one colourblind and some poor decisions, but it is nevertheless a good film. Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer both give terrific performance in their respective roles as Hoover and Tolson, Black's script, though troublesome, has some great moments and is genuinely touching when it maintains a certain level of focus. Also, there is a very well-established mise-en-scene through it's costumes and production design, and, in the interest of fairness, has some nice long takes from Tom Stern. Finally, although Eastwood has made better (and longer) films of this nature such as Bird and Changeling, you are guaranteed an efficiently made film, and J. Edgar is a good film worth at a watch.
The Thin White Dude's Prognosis - 6.4/10
The Thin White Dude's Self-Diagnosis - Sharp (as Crocodile Dundee's knife. Well, off to take the dog a walk!)