Monday, February 06, 2012

Review - J. Edgar

When Clint Eastwood depicts the death of J. Edgar Hoover in his new film J.Edgar, he follows it with a scene in which the FBI head honcho's private secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) begins shredding all of his files and documents before Richard Nixon can get his hands on them. This is the key problem that a biopic of Hoover faces – the man took all of his secrets, and those of many others, to the grave, so how can one movie expect to get under the skin and inside the head of such a character? Bearing that in mind, perhaps we shouldn't anticipated any real revelations from Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (though we may justifiably ask why they bothered making the film at all), but the really dismaying thing about J. Edgar is how rudderless and empty the whole thing feels. Forget answers – this film hardly musters up the energy to ask probing questions.

Clint Eastwood has gained a reputation for shooting writers' first drafts without asking for any revisions, and in his most recent films the flaws in this policy have become self-evident. J. Edgar feels lumpy and ungainly as it jumps back-and-forth in time; the framing device of Hoover dictating his memoirs feels like a lazy method to tie it all together. Hoover is played by Leonardo Di Caprio who makes a valiant attempt to bring some fire and conviction to a somnambulant movie. An assertive presence as the young Hoover eager to make a name for himself, he grows more furtive and guarded as he gets older, and Di Caprio does a decent job of giving a textured and nuanced performance, even when he's asked to act from beneath some stifling makeup. He is rather hobbled by the film's non-committal take on Hoover though; it's weirdly uncritical of his pervasive intrusion into the lives of so many Americans, and vague on the details of his personal life.

Put simply, J. Edgar doesn't really seem to know what it's actually about. We get the creation and development of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (the Lindbergh case could be a movie in itself), Hoover's relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and, above all, his longtime love for colleague and partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Again, J. Edgar is oddly tentative around this subject; it suggests that their love for each other, though lasting for decades, was never consummated, and that a passionate kiss delivered more in anger and confusion was as close as they got. The rest of their relationship is built upon fleeting glances and suggestive dialogue, but Hammer brings enormous charm to Tolson and his scenes with Di Caprio are the best in the film. Their relationship gives it some warmth, some life, at least it does until Hammer is mummified under some of the worst old-age makeup I've ever seen.

Quite how a prestige studio production like this can contain such half-assed makeup work is beyond me, but it epitomises the slack feel of the whole movie. Does Clint know the difference anymore between emphasising shadows and darkening scenes to the point where you can't see the actor's face? Why was an actress of Naomi Watts' quality fobbed off with role that asks her to stand in the background shuffling papers? Who oversaw the casting for Richard Nixon and Robert Kennedy? Why oh why did nobody demand a rewrite? I feel I gained a greater sense of J. Edgar Hoover's character from his depiction in James Ellroy's American Tabloid or Oliver Stone's Nixon than I did from this bloated and shallow movie, which barely seems interested in getting to the heart of its elusive subject.