The list of Hollywood biopics is long. Very long. They’ll make a movie about pretty much anyone of any kind of notoriety. Most of the time, they’re pretty great. Giving us either a checklist of historical events or showing us some back-stories we may be unfamiliar with. That is, shedding light on a subject that hasn’t been given as much attention. When it comes to adapting a big production based around the life of one of America’s most influential and public faces, you better come up with something more than we may think we already know. And so is, sort of, the case with Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
Writer Dustin Lance Black is no stranger to the subject of biopics. He may have given us the Oscar winning screenplay for Milk, but he also wrote the screenplay for Pedro. This was the film about the first HIV-positive homosexual reality TV star from MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. I’m sure most people have never heard of Pedro, but Milk happened to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards and I’m certain that Black, along with Eastwood, have their sights set on a similar projection. Given the fact they have Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the titular character looks to only be further trying to seal the deal.
A fellow critic told me that J. Edgar featured a “Wikipedia screenplay.” And it’s pretty true. But in the case of the performances, that’s where the film truly shines. It starts with Hoover meeting with a writer (Robert Irwin) to tell his life story in his own words — with events ranging from his earliest job in Mitchell Palmer’s (Geoff Pierson) office to his dead-end attempts to woo Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts). It mostly plays out like an interweaving of skits based on true events. We also get the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, where his forensic science is shunned for its “extreme” nature such as employing wood specialist Arthur Koehler (Stephen Root), along with the transition of gangster films to the G-men heroes of the silver screen after the arrest of “Machine Gun” Kelly, and of course the Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) baby gets its due.
The largest amount of screentime happens to be split between the two biggest relationships in Hoover’s life: his mother Annie (Judi Dench) and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer). At first you may be wondering why a man who leads the nation’s FBI still lives at home with his mother, but it makes sense when you take into account how much time he also spends at work and socially with Tolson. Yes, Eastwood and Black make no attempts to hide Hoover’s homosexuality and there’s even one scene with a pretty monumental kiss between the two. However, some of this plays a little too much like Psycho-lite and comes across almost as unintentionally funny. Thankfully we have the scenes being handled with the utmost care by DiCaprio, Hammer, and Dench.
The film could also easily have fallen apart in the hands of a lesser director. But Eastwood manages to handle everything as maturely as it deserves. However, the screenplay seems to be trying so hard to piece everything together that without Eastwood and the rest of the cast everything would have been another story altogether. The ending seems be trying to pack a bigger emotional wallop than it can conjure up and also seems oddly out of place. It heads straight down the Beautiful Mind route but with the story being about Norman Bates rather than John Nash, or even the film’s own Hoover.
In the end, if the film is nominated for anything, it will surely be for acting and possibly Best Picture. Let’s face it; these are the films that Oscar is prone for. While it in no way deserves the highest honor, the cast may still receive their due, along with the makeup department. That is if they discount the scenes featuring an aged Armie Hammer who looks like he’s stepped off the set of Saturday Night Live wearing a Tolson Halloween mask. It’s made even more evident how sketchy his makeup is when he’s filmed standing next to DiCaprio in broad daylight. Even if yet another critic friend hadn’t pointed it out prior to seeing the film it’s still just as blatantly bad. And DiCaprio’s brown contacts are a bit of a distraction. In the darker lit scenes he comes off almost vampiric.
Granted, there are some pacing issues but the length is never as wince inducing as some of Eastwood’s more recent films. The runtime flies by compared to the likes of Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino, or even worse, Hereafter. J. Edgar may owe a large debt to Martin Scorsese’s own DiCaprio starring Aviator and maybe even Michael Mann’s Public Enemies, but if you’re looking for a big budget Hollywood biopic you could certainly do a lot worse.