J. Edgar a Very Dull Film

J. EDGAR (2011)

Directed by Clint Eastwood

Warner Brothers, 137 mins. Rated R (language, violence)

* *

J. Edgar has been getting rave reviews from critics. Don’t fall for it; this film is flatter than a Herman Cain tax proposal. It is indifferently acted, weakly scripted, and unimaginatively directed. The film checks in at 137 minutes, but it feels much longer.

Leonardo DiCaprio stars as FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (1895-1972), whose rise to fame and infamy this film purports to trace. Director Clint Eastwood does this through a very tired filmic device-–flashbacks interspersed with the late-in-life writing of a memoir. DiCaprio is in every scene–as the ambitious and oily young Hoover, as the amoral and outdated older man, and as the omniscient voiceover for all of the linking passages. Phoenix thought he was convincing as Hoover–though she agrees the movie was dull–but I’m just not a DiCaprio fan. For me, he never quite manages to be anyone other than Leo and I no more bought him as Hoover than as Howard Hughes in The Aviator (2004). I admit, though, he looked the part. I’d have no quarrels with this film winning makeup and costume Oscars, but if it wins much of anything else, it may be time to write Hollywood’s epitaph.

One of the film’s subthemes is the relationship between Hoover and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film takes as a given that which remains speculative among Hoover biographers: that Hoover and Tolson were lovers. And that’s about all it does. Their love is (or isn’t) consummated off-screen, as is virtually every other bit of action that might give us insight into Hoover’s character. I suppose we’re supposed to conclude that Hoover became a Machiavellian monster because he tried to sublimate and hide his homosexuality and that he felt compelled to win the love of his unapproving and domineering mother (Judi Dench as Anna Marie Hoover), but there is not enough depth to writer Dustin Lance Black’s script to convince us of this. Eastwood’s clunky direction doesn’t help; he truncates potentially revelatory dialogue in favor of moving us back into the compilation of Hoover’s memoir. (I can think of few less interesting ways of making a film than watching someone dictate thoughts to a typist.) What could have been a semi-interesting history lesson get lost as well; Eastwood deforms dramatic events from the past into little more than potted plants lurking in the background. To pick just one example, the film begins with Hoover’s obsession with stymieing a 1919 Bolshevik plot to bring down the government. We see a few bombs go off, including one that almost killed Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer. But the only “villain” we see exposed comes during a brief segment of Emma Goldman refusing to answer questions at her deportation trial. We certainly do not learn that most of the offices the Justice Department raided belonged to innocent members of the Industrial Workers of the World, immigrant social clubs, and anti-communist socialists.

A history lesson is merely among the things this film could have been but isn’t. It’s also not a convincing portrait of a tortured soul, not a searing exposé of the rise of a demagogue, not a revelation of gay life in the stay-in-the-closet years, not a blow-the-lid off divulgation of justice miscarried in high places, and not a penetrating look at a relic out of step with the times. To my eyes, it was just Leo trying to appear weighty (both figuratively and literally).

My vote for the best acting in the film goes to Naomi Watts for her role as personal secretary Helen Gandy. She takes very thin material–Black’s underwritten script–and emerges as an enigmatic character. If Tolver is the right hand, she’s the left. Watts plays her sparse role with icy efficiency, leaving us to wonder if she’s loyal to Hoover because she shares his paranoiac values, or whether she’s simply savvy enough to calculate that the antidote to powerlessness in a pre-feminist world is to be the puppet mistress.

Here’s the ultimate measure of this film’s lameness; I did not walk out hating Hoover. I should have; he was a despicable man who undermined American democracy in the guise of saving it. I hated the real SOB when he was alive, but I simply couldn’t care less about the cartoon cutout I saw on the screen. Label this one a bore and a snore.

No comments: