Film Review: J. Edgar

Released January 20th 2012 (UK opening)

You’d think it would be safe to say that a film starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood would be a critical, artistic and financial success, and with rumours and chatter of Oscar nominations ringing out from the wake of J. Edgar’s run in cinemas in America and premiere in the UK last week it is troubling to consider why I wasn’t exactly blown away.

The film starts slowly and dryly, the first half hour dragging its audience through a series of scenes orchestrated entirely to show off DiCaprio’s grasp of Hoover’s speech and mannerisms, with setting up the story acting as background noise to the initial visual of seeing Leo in all that make-up to establish that they’re going all out to make the star look like Hoover. The make-up and DiCaprio’s portrayal are impressive, but are distracting in a showy sort of way, until DiCaprio finally pulls the audience in with what I imagine will be an almost forgotten scene. After showing us the coldness and directness of Hoover in the first half hour, DiCaprio instils some interest in the character as he shows momentary weakness as a result of addressing the nickname given to him by his co-workers in reference to his speech impediment. It’s in Hoover’s vulnerability here that the first half hour makes sense; though fairly dull, it acts as the tough veneer that Hoover creates, with the cracking of that surface being where the drama lies.

After this scene however, it’s hard to find too much to get excited about with this film. The scene between Hoover and his deputy/potential romantic interest Clyde Tolson in the hotel room is fraught with a surge of danger, in that we know from DiCaprio’s excellent character work how his fragility and vulnerability won’t let him get what he wants in a time that wouldn’t understand. Other than that, the film comes across as confused about its own identity, in that it is concerned with being overly accurate with facts in an attempt to be a stellar historical biopic, while also being a fundamentally schmaltzy, sentimental romance, and it’s clear that it can’t work both ways. The fact that a lot of the drama is driven by speculative and unproven commentaries on Hoover’s personal life is telling in regards to the weak underbelly of the film.

So why doesn’t it work? It’s DiCaprio teaming with Eastwood on a film about one of the more enigmatic and unexplored characters of American history. Perhaps it’s in this where the problems lie. While J. Edgar Hoover’s life story is intriguing, it has that incessant feeling of another figure with significance in an American context being chronicled for the rest of the world who mostly see him in a relatively ambivalent light. Sandwiched between the romantic cadence of Kennedy and the ‘devil reincarnate’ figure of Nixon, the film has an uphill battle to begin with in tackling the relevance of the man himself.


What it ultimately boils down to, though, is that while DiCaprio is expectedly incredible in his portrayal of Hoover, having noted down speech patterns and mannerisms impeccably, there’s a large sense that the reason the film is getting so many plaudits is down entirely to Leo’s involvement. The film is long, overly sentimental and the major flaw lies in its inferiority to its leading star’s epic portrayals of fictional characters in box office smash Inception and the intriguing Shutter Island. While the performance is equally as riveting, a sense of the relative insignificance of Hoover despite all he achieved in comparison to Kennedy and Nixon combined with the fact this isn’t Inception seemingly lands this film as one of DiCaprio’s that you shouldn’t be too bothered about missing. While J. Edgar is an entertaining way to spend a couple of hours if you’ve got them to kill, the lesson it teaches us is that there are no sure-fire hits, regardless of who’s attached to star and direct.



n.b. due to technical difficulties, this has been posted later than intended. Check back tomorrow for another update, technology permitting.


~ by jrhett on January 23, 2012.

One Response to “Film Review: J. Edgar”

  1. […] Film Review: J. Edgar […]

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