J. Edgar is one of those films that you can see the passion be it from the costume design, production design and the cast. It’s unfortunate that the screenplay never quite gives the viewer a reason to care either way. Worst still, the movie plods along at a slow and arduous pace and although I appreciate the non-linear storytelling (it worked for Scorsese in The Aviator after all), it doesn’t do any justice for the character in the long run.
Warner Bros. | R – 137 min. – $35.99 | February 21, 2012
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Writer(s): Dustin Lance Black (written by)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench
Theatrical Release Date: November 11, 2011
Features: Featurette, DVD Copy, UltraViolet Digital Copy
Number of Discs: 2
Audio: English (DTS-HD MA 5.1), French (Dolby Digital 5.1)
Video: 1080p/Widescreen 2.40
Subtitles: English SDH, French, Spanish
Disc Size: NA
Codec: MPEG-4 AVC
Region(s): A, B, C
THE MOVIE – 2.5/5
As a film, J. Edgar is a complex mess offering up insight into a conflicted individual and yet by the end, one can’t really empathize with the man, which is strange given J. Edgar Hoover is widely considered one of the most controversial figures of the 20th century, doing so much for the country in building the FBI into a behemoth agency, being on the forefront of forensic science yet also was a paranoid man who consistently overextended his authority. However, what is really learned about him? He was apparently a closeted homosexual (tantalizing but unconfirmed) and that he had a grandiose vision of himself to the point of fabricating stories in a memoir to shine the light brighter on his career. One would assume this would be ripe for award-winning theatrics but instead J. Edgar is a blunder of a film and sadly for Clint Eastwood, his third directorial misfire in a row.
J. Edgar is a biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover spanning his life from a young man who would be the assistant to the Attorney General and head of the newly formed FBI through his senior years where he becomes increasingly paranoid and even more secretive than normal. The film primarily focuses on J. Edgar’s relationship with three people close to him: his overbearing mother, Anna Marie Hoover (JUDIE DENCH); Helen Gandy (NAOMI WATTS) who would be his personal and loyal secretary until the day he died; and Clyde Tolson (ARMIE HAMMER) who was Edgar’s best friend and, rumor has it, perhaps his homosexual partner.
One would think the dynamic between J. Edgar and these three would make for an interesting movie but it largely goes unfulfilled even when the relationship between Edgar and Tolson took center stage. I believe the focus between these three characters is the most fascinating aspect of Hoover’s life but because the movie takes a mostly non-linear approach, it failed to really take hold of any pace or momentum. Of course, it doesn’t help matters seeing a famous actor like Leonardo DiCaprio wearing an abundant amount of silicone make-up to make him look 40 years older. While it wouldn’t have entirely fixed problems with the screenplay, it probably would’ve been to the film’s benefit to just hire actors to play the older counterparts (think Albert Finney as the older J. Edgar) rather than pasting on prosthetics; though to be fair, Watts comes across the best.
Outside of Edgar’s limited personal relationships, the film also goes off on vignettes of sorts including the Lindbergh baby kidnapping (JOSH LUCAS appears in a limited role as Charles Lindbergh) as Edgar starts up what was the frontier in forensic science that would ultimately capture and convict the man thought responsible for the kidnapping and murder. It also taps into Edgar’s ever overstepping of the law as he sought to take down Martin Luther King Jr.
Aside from the story, which again never quite picks up energy, I will give some props to Leonardo DiCaprio. It’s obvious why somebody as intense as DiCaprio, and who seems to only take on dramatic roles, would be attracted to a character like J. Edgar Hoover. Not only is the person so mysterious with his secretive life but the chance to act as the older version presents a challenge that probably doesn’t often come along. That being said, and with all due respect, something about his performance never quite felt right. I don’t know if it was the voice over/narration (which in itself is a risky writing maneuver) or if it was DiCaprio just was not right for the role, but this was not one DiCaprio finest moments. For sure, there are some scenes that are well done but on the whole, it never made an impression either way.
With regards to the supporting cast, Armie Hammer, the younger version without the caked on make-up, comes out well enough as somebody who, despite some deep concerns, stuck with J. Edgar through thick and thin and was able to portray a man who admired, even loved, the man. His performance does get a bit over-the-top as he and Edgar get into a fight and tussle around. It’s not quite a laughable scene but it’s one of the lower points in the film.
For her part, Naomi Watts I guess gives a fine performance but it’s largely limited. She has two key scenes with DiCaprio and while both of the actors are good, neither really captures any kind of magic. Her character more or less just a loyal secretary and friend but only because the script tells us so rather than coming across as believable. This is not Watts’ fault since her part is overshadowed by Hammer and Judi Dench.
On that subject, the only highlight acting-wise for J. Edgar is the performance by Oscar winner Judi Dench. Although her role isn’t huge taking up maybe 15 minutes of screen time, yet she presents the most charisma and weight than anybody else. You get a better sense of who Edgar was whenever he’s interacting with his mother, providing the most insight in the entire movie.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, it’s obvious to me that his latest fares have not exactly been impressive; aspiring and difficult for sure, but unimpressive. His last two films were largely disappointing from the melodramatic and ineffective multi-story Hereafter and another ho-hum biopic Invictus which, save for a great performance from Morgan Freeman, never really hit its stride and go beyond being a ‘good’ movie that could’ve been great. And that’s how I would describe J. Edgar, a movie with so much potential thwarted by a screenplay and story that never quite comes together.
SPECIAL FEATURES – 1.75/5
The Blu-ray comes with a semi-glossy slip cover and inside a standard definition DVD Copy and an UltraViolet Digital Copy download code.
Unfortunately, par for the course for a Warner Brothers release, this has minimal features, in fact we only get a solo featurette, J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World (18:10; HD). Members of the cast (Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer) and crew (director Clint Eastwood, writer Dustin Lance Black, producer Brian Grazer) talk about the J. Edgar Hoover and their thoughts on him. It’s really nothing special and is pretty superficial as you don’t get much info about the actual filmmaking, yet it’s at least interesting to watch.
VIDEO – 4.0/5
The Blu-ray 1080p transfer (AVC codec) for J. Edgar looks good, albeit not entirely impressive for a new release. The detail level is hard to determine based on how director Clint Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern photographed because the film as a whole looks awfully dark to the point it’s damn hard to determine what’s going on. On a positive front, I didn’t notice much in the way of artifacting or other flaws during those dark shots, so it’s not all bad news for the transfer.
AUDIO – 3.75/5
The 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track is a bit subdued but that’s not unexpected. Outside of one explosion early on, the rest of the film is primarily dialogue-driven with only a minimal amount of sound coming via the front and rear channels, and most of that being Eastwood’s piano-centric score. Even so, the dialogue does sound crisp and clear throughout so it’s not a bad track just one that’s not going to have much depth to it.
OVERALL – 2.5/5
Overall, J. Edgar is one of those films that you can see the passion be it from the costume design, production design and the cast. It’s unfortunate that the screenplay never quite gives the viewer a reason to care either way. Worst still, the movie plods along at a slow and arduous pace and although I appreciate the non-linear storytelling (it worked for Scorsese in The Aviator after all), it doesn’t do any justice for the character in the long run. As it is, J. Edgar is hardly a bad movie and there are a few things to admire but at the same time this is a movie best for rental as it’s doesn’t exactly hold much replay value.
The Blu-ray is a bit of a disappointment as well with only one featurette (that has little to do with the actual making of the movie) and decent but unimpressive audio and video transfers.