Thursday, November 10, 2011

'J. Edgar' lacks a compelling point of view

There's much to admire about Clint Eastwood's look at J. Edgar Hoover, but the movie eventually becomes far too laborious.
He loathed Communism, saw himself as a staunch patriot and kept secret files on anyone he thought might threaten his ascendance. J. Edgar Hoover was a world-class intimidator, who used his manipulative skills and power to build the FBI into a national crime-fighting force.

It has been widely speculated that Hoover had yet another side to him, that he was a closeted homosexual who shared a marriage-like intimacy - if not carnal pleasures - with Clyde Tolson, his second in command.

This man of stunning contradiction is the subject of J. Edgar, a new and carefully assembled biopic from director Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black. Eastwood needs no introduction: Black, you may recall, won an Oscar for his screenplay for Milk, the story of slain San Francisco board supervisor* Harvey Milk.

Eastwood and Black seem to have genuine sympathy for the torment of those who are unable to acknowledge important parts of themselves - in this case, gayness. Eastwood treats Hoover's death in 1972 with a tenderness that's almost mournful.

And then there's the performance of Leonardo DiCaprio, who creates a stark and convincing portrait of Hoover as a troubled man who seldom lost his composure. Heralded in a recent New York Times piece as an actor who welcomes risk, DiCaprio hardly seems a natural fit for the role Hoover, but he meets the challenge.

DiCaprio provides the movie with a solid center, and he receives able support from Armie Hammer, who plays Tolson. Depicted as cultured and witty, Tolson became the second most powerful figure in Hoover's FBI. He also inherited Hoover's estate after the FBI director passed away.

Overall, Eastwood and Black seem to be trying for a tempered approach to Hoover's story, telling us that if he had them, Hoover never acted on any homosexual urges, that he was an early champion of forensic evidence, that he sometimes abused his power and that, on at least one occasion, he put on his mother's clothes.

But what do we take from a movie that's beautifully crafted and earnest to a fault? Not enough, I think. I kept waiting for J. Edgar to catch fire, but it moves somewhat laboriously over its two-hour and 16-minute length, never really finding a compelling point of view.

Moreover, J. Edgar suffers from a depressingly conventional structure: An aged and embattled Hoover tells what he bills as his side of his story to various young FBI agents, dictating chapter after chapter of a self-serving autobiography. Eastwood uses flash backs to develop the story from Hoover's perspective.

This gives the movie a kind "Hoover's Greatest Hits'' quality; "J. Edgar" lacks the organic punch of a great biopic. Hoover tells the story of the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and of his stormy relationship with Bobby Kennedy and more. But the movie has a near reportorial tone at times when outrage over Hoover's excesses (his campaign against Martin Luther King, for example) might have been more appropriate. Two women influence the story - albeit in small doses. Judi Dench portrays Hoover's strikingly imperious mother. She bossed him around; he didn't seem to mind. Naomi Watts fares equally well as Helen Gandy, Hoover's long-time secretary.

Any review of J. Edgar must also deal with the make-up issue.

I couldn't entirely shake my awareness of the make-up under which DiCaprio and Hammer (especially Hammer) are buried and which tends to give them eerie wax-works countenances, the look of the embalmed. If a character is aged for a final scene or two of a movie, it's easier to accept, but we see DiCaprio in full make-up throughout the movie.

Look, I respect Eastwood as a filmmaker, and he deserves credit for tackling a difficult subject, but he doesn't seem to have wrested his subject to the ground. J. Edgar moves from one incident to another, sampling an awful lot of history without ever quite knowing what to make of the man who gives the picture its name.

*In an earlier copy of this review, I incorrectly referred to Milk as having held the post of mayor.

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