Director Clint Eastwood had a very tough sell with his biopic J. Edgar. The story of the very first director of the FBI was not greeted enthusiastically by either critics or moviegoers. This is the type of historical epic that is often expected to rack up Oscar nominations, yet the film didn’t earn a single one. Much of this can be explained very simply: the film is a jumbled mess that ultimately sheds little light on the importance and influence of J. Edgar Hoover. There are some interesting passages, but in the end it seems like the filmmakers just weren’t sure how to handle their subject.
The narrative follows a fractured timeline that skips somewhat erratically around Hoover’s life and career. This may be the film’s biggest failing, as I found it didn’t convey the perspective of Hoover’s time in office. He served as the FBI’s director for an astonishing thirty-seven years, but the film’s jumpy structure doesn’t really make that clear. Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the title character. While he seems adequate while portraying the man’s younger years, he doesn’t pull off the older Hoover. I happen to think DiCaprio is probably the most overrated actor of his generation to begin with so I went into J. Edgar with a strong bias. But even taking that into account, I found DiCaprio’s work here to be overly deliberate and stagey. The old age makeup is, as many others have pointed out, a joke. But even considering he is often buried under completely artificial, unconvincing makeup, DiCaprio never seems comfortable in the role.
There are isolated sequences that hint at the movie J. Edgar could’ve been. When Hoover is working with Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) following the abduction of the aviator’s child, the film becomes quite gripping. But this episode is basically a side story, incidental to the overall life-spanning portrait Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have tried to create. Hoover’s accomplishments in reorganizing and prioritizing the function of the bureau are explored somewhat. The film also becomes intermittently fascinating when dealing with the controversial topic of accusations against Hoover of abuse of power and his tendencies toward self-aggrandizement. But again these strong individual scenes are shot down by the scattershot storytelling method employed by Eastwood and Black.
The widely reported rumors that Hoover was a cross-dresser are almost ignored, probably for the best. There is no actual evidence to support these dubious claims. But the topic of Hoover’s suspected homosexuality is very much a focus of J. Edgar. In fact, another problem with the movie is just how schizophrenic it feels as it switches between reenacting actual events and speculating about Hoover’s relationship with colleague and friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It’s hard to take the scenes that occur behind closed doors seriously, as they are purely the product of speculative imagining. While Black’s screenplay doesn’t exactly “out” Hoover as being gay, it definitely takes the stance that he and Tolson were lovers. I don’t personally care either way, I just don’t like such great liberties taken when portraying a historical figure onscreen. Hammer, for what it’s worth, turns in fine work as Tolson, despite being saddled with comically bad old age makeup.
J. Edgar is an interesting looking film; extremely dark and shadowy. The Blu-ray presentation does an exemplary job of conveying that look. Sharpness is never lacking, even during scenes where most of the visuals are shrouded in darkness. This is about as close to black-and-white that a color film can get. The color seems to have been intentionally drained from the image. What is left – dark grays, blues, and earth tones – is solidly presented. Black levels are necessarily very deep and solid. Whether one agrees with the aesthetic decision by Eastwood his cinematographer Tom Stern, it’s hard to find fault in this transfer.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 mix is a great example of the use of contrast in sound. Most of the movie is very subtle, with clear, intelligible dialogue dominating the proceedings. The score is appropriately balanced, never overpowering quiet scenes of people simply talking. But when it needs to shake things up, the track gets the job done. A gigantic explosion at private residence early in the film had me almost literally jumping out of my seat. The LFE channel rumbled impressively, while the rear channels featured distinct shattering sounds. Other scenes taking place outdoors, such as those involving the search for the Lindbergh baby, crackle and pop with activity in all channels. While J. Edgar is mostly a sedate audio experience, the sound design is well represented.
Unfortunately not many supplemental features are found on the J. Edgar Blu-ray. The only one is a featurette called “The Most Powerful Man in the World,” which runs just under twenty minutes. Luckily this piece is considerably more informative than a standard EPK-style puff piece. Most of the film’s primary players are shown in interview clips, including Eastwood (though unfortunately very briefly). The featurette does a good job of getting the point across that not very much was actually publicly known about Hoover. The film was a combination of known factual information and speculation. The participants acknowledge and discuss the challenges in depicting a public figure whose life was exceedingly private.