Biopics are difficult. Recognizable real people, living or dead, are tough to do. Dramatic license often has to be taken of the events of their lives to keep the movie moving and at least somewhat interesting.
J. Edgar is J. Edgar Hoover’s story as told by director Clint Eastwood from Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) screenplay.
Some would argue — including myself — that Eastwood is this country’s best living director. While others such as Gus Van Sant and Martin Scorsese quickly come to mind and have equal technical skill, no one tells a story better than Eastwood. He often chooses complex projects requiring multiple plot lines and characters. Many of his films flow between past and present. When needed, Eastwood handles the transitions seamlessly and never loses you.
With J. Edgar that skill comes in handy.
Eastwood probes the highlights and many anger-producing lowlights of Hoover’s 37 years as head of the FBI and more than 50-year law enforcement career. Then, to give you some idea of how J. Edgar got to be J. Edgar, Eastwood goes deeper into the man’s past and regrettably deeper into what passed as his pleasures.
First, the highlights. And there are many. They are found in Eastwood’s tight direction and some terrific acting. Heavily made up to — at times — look eerily like Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio goes all out. He works and works, digs and pushes and strains mightily to give Hoover more dimensions than one. To no avail. It’s a great performance but with no substance, it goes for naught.
A nearly unrecognizable Naomi Watts plays Hoover’s executive assistant and secret-keeper Helen Gandy. Her character, as DiCaprio’s, has little substance and she has absolutely nothing to do. The Social Network’s Armie Hammer is Hoover’s maybe, maybe not, but probably, love interest and assistant FBI director Clyde Tolson. He’s a decent actor with little to do but fret some and flash the best lady killer smile to hit the movies since a young Jack Nicholson.
Wrapping up the talented major players is Judi Dench as Hoover’s mom.
Hoover is arguably the most feared man in American history. The face he projected to the public and the real-life Hoover, as history now shows, are not the same. The founder and first director of the FBI had an uncanny ability to dig up dirt on politicians, presidents from Roosevelt to Kennedy, entertainers, social and political organizers like Martin Luther King and anyone he deemed a threat to U.S. security. Much of what Hoover picked up and placed in his secret files was obtained through illegal wiretaps, surveillance, film and photographs. When it was convenient, and to his advantage to keep his position and power, Hoover used the information.
It’s as much Hoover’s legacy as being the instigator of revolutionary crime fighting investigative techniques and founding what at one time was considered the most efficient and feared crime-fighting organization on the planet.
Bing-bonging from past to present and back, and working to separate fantasy and myth from fact, Eastwood shows Hoover as a shallow, shameless, emotionally twisted and flawed crusader. He doesn’t, however, judge. Eastwood lets you decide and just presents Hoover’s sterile story.
The sterility is also his film’s flaw. Hoover didn’t have much of a personality. While the history of his life and the times in which he served is interesting, the man — and his character — are not.
Mr. Movie rating: 3 1/2 stars
Rated R for mature themes, violence, language. It opens Friday, Nov. 11 at the Carmike 12, the Fairchild Cinemas 12 and at the Walla Walla Grand Cinemas.
5 stars to 4 1/2 stars: Must see on the big screen
4 stars to 3 1/2 stars: Good film, see it if it's your type of movie.
3 stars to 2 1/2 stars: Wait until it comes out on video.
2 stars to 1 star: Don't bother.
0 stars: Speaks for itself.