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Mr. Eastwood just can't stop. Year after year he keeps cranking out picture after picture. Some attain greatness while others flounder. His latest, J. Edgar, falls somewhere in between. This biopic of the man who basically built the FBI from scratch is chocked full of production values and well acted performances, but it lacks the necessary warmth of a feature of this style. Like the all work and no play J. Edgar Hoover himself, the film feels emotionally stunted and only finds release in its shot in the dark finale.
As a man nearing the end of his career, Hoover recounts the highlights of his story to a pair of writers with plans to release a biography of sorts. As he recalls the past in played out flashbacks, the present progresses with a potential sex scandal cover up, Kennedy's assassination and Nixon's ascendancy to first in command. At the tender age of only 24, Hoover found himself with quite a resume, which ultimately landed him in the director's chair of the newly founded Federal Bureau of Investigation. His lack of interest in a social life lent itself to complete devotion to his work, which he believed in more than anything in the world. Over the years, Hoover found it necessary to bend the rules of surveillance and investigation for what he believed to be the greater good of the US, but legalities aside, his work with the FBI stands as a great achievement. He organized finger print databases, started scientific investigation units, and helped take down some of the most notorious criminals of the century. Along the way, Hoover hired Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who would become his number two man and secret lover.
Despite the enthralling real life story of such an enigmatic man being the basis for the story and vibrant time period accurate set pieces setting the stage, Eastwood fails to bring life to the subject matter. He tries to create an inner conflict within Hoover based on circulating rumors that speculated his sexuality, but it comes off as slightly stale and irrelevant for a man with so much control within his life. The gay relationship with Tolson was never confirmed either way, but Eastwood runs with it here, desperately trying to find tension within a rather emotionally flat time line.
As always, Leonardo DiCaprio brings an intensity and assuredness to the lead role. Although he doesn't necessarily look like the original, it would be hard to imagine someone else playing Hoover. His moments of embarrassment or deflected emotional encroachment read quite authentic, especially those shared with his dear mother, played by Judi Dench, who's eyes bring a truthful heritage to their relationship. Casting director Fiona Weir got it completely right by casting them as a mother and son, the whites of their eyes both nearly swallowed by their dark irises. Naomi Watts plays Hoover's obedient and loyal secretary who is assumed to have destroyed massive amounts of secret files upon Hoover's death. As Tolson, Hammer gets to play an obviously effeminate ivy league grad who becomes Hoover's partner. The cast is elegant, and thanks to some mostly invisible makeup work, they all naturally age throughout the film, ultimately becoming old men and women, with warn yellowed eyes and thorough skin damage that looks quite real.
With such an excellent cast and a story that would seem to make for a truly entertaining political police drama, Eastwood looked to have a possible lock for the Oscar chase with J. Edgar's fall release, but somewhere along the line he lost something very important. Audiences need emotional tension and release, an ebb and flow within the story to keep them invested, especially in a film that runs about two and a half hours, but unfortunately it doesn't happen within J. Edgar Hoover's biopic. I guess fighting crime and questionable sexual identities can't always make for engaging cinema.
--Jordan M. Smith
Release Date: November 11, 2011