Sometimes I feel bad about today's modern killer.
Back in the day, you could literally get away with murder. Unless you curled up beside the body knife in hand, who was the wiser? Even then, say you happened upon the scene and passed out from fright and no one could prove otherwise.
These days, though, you have to contend with fingerprints, DNA, surveillance cameras--it's a wonder anyone's able to get the job done. If you're a hitman displaced from work, then, you may want to shy away from J. Edgar, a biopic about the FBI founder who advanced forensic investigation from a joke to a science.
As an old man, FBI chief Leonardo DiCaprio (playing J. Edgar Hoover) feels attacked by a presidential administration that considers him a political relic. To set the record straight, he begins dictating his side of the story to a young assistant.
It's a long and momentous career, spanning the homeland Communist threats of the early 20th century, the founding of the FBI, revolutionary forensics methods, and the kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. DiCaprio has overseen it all--in part because he'll use any methods to keep hold of his place atop the Bureau.
J. Edgar is a movie with a pedigree. It's directed by Clint Eastwood, who's probably going to shoot me for the trash I'm about to talk about this one, so if I cut off mid-sentence it's either because I fled to Mexico or because I lost a fight with a .44 Magnum.
Writer Dustin Lance Black's Milk won the 2008 Oscar for best screenplay. Some people, i.e. me, consider DiCaprio one of the best actors alive. And the subject matter is a towering American figure connected to every president from Hoover to Nixon. Add it all up and J. Edgar is poised to take home more tiny statues than a klepto chess master.
Problem is, when I say DiCaprio dictates the events of his life, I mean he literally sits there narrating what happened while a quick little scene plays out on the screen. There's no story to get swept up in, just explanation after explanation. Listen pal, I don't go to the movies to be explained to. If I want that, I'll spend extra time mopping up outside Mr. Winston's class. He always leaves the door open.
Turns out there's a reason for all this narration, but it doesn't hit with any of the force it's intended to. It's way, way late and just not all that revelatory. That's also due to the fact J. Edgar is critically unfocused. Apparently Hoover invented fingerprinting and many other modern methods of fighting crime, but that hardly gets lip service. His bizarre relationship with his mom (Judi Dench) gets similar short shrift. Which is to say its shrift is shorted like hell. It's almost like Hoover's life is too interesting and trying to show just how interesting it is in a mere 135 minutes is doomed. In failing to hone in on any one aspect of the man's life, J. Edgar is flat, unengaging, and dull.
Also, the old man makeup. This isn't the sort of thing that typically bothers me. DiCaprio's is fine. I can buy him as a 75-year-old man. But his long-term assistant, friend and would-be lover Armie Hammer is in real life a 25-year-old, 6-foot-5 uberman. Even his name could beat you up. Trying to use makeup to age him 50 years is less convincing than Mohammed Saeed al-Sahaf. Come on, you remember that guy. Iraqi Minister of Information? Tried to convince us Saddam could shoot lasers from his eyes and burrow through the earth to attack us where we least suspect? Look, the point to take away from this is Hammer's makeup is completely unconvincing and so a lot of J. Edgar's most emotional moments are faintly ridiculous.
There are moments of greatness here. Eastwood's cinematography is typically gorgeous. Individual scenes shine, and DiCaprio is captivating as a brilliant but deeply flawed man whose dedication to his country is outstripped only by his dedication to himself.
But you know what's even more flawed? This movie's story structure. Overwhelmed by the breadth of its subject's life, J. Edgar never finds a way to make us care.