J Edgar (2011)
Dir. Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo Di Caprio, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts.
Great films that are similar: The Manchurian Candidate, All The President’s Men, Nixon.
There is both a major loss and a major gain that one may take from a viewing of Clint Eastwood’s new biopic, J Edgar. Unfortunately, both the loss and the gain are inextricable...
Actually, you know what? Let’s begin this review in a simpler fashion. I suspect that neither Clint nor the good people at the Beareau would be into using words like “inextricable.”
Okay, here goes, let’s get honest...
Let us take a moment or two to fuss over film form like Hoover fussed over clandestine Communism. At the risk of being as uncouth as a fart at the dinner table-Clint Eastwood isn’t even trying anymore. I don’t know about you, but I’m starting to feel as though Clint the director has definitely descended into an unpleasant semi-retirement. The visual nature of this film screams of a lack of effort and forethought. True enough, Clint has always chosen a lucid, effortless visual style for his directorial outings. However, beneath the velvet reassurance of the easy-to watch photography usually lay a certain magic. Think of the “that says it all” breathtaking opening shot of Unforgiven, or the dreamlike hope of Maggie at the punching-bag in Million Dollar Baby. Sure, the days of the hearth-throb Eastwood of Play Misty for Me and Dirty Harry are long gone, along with the exploitation-redolent, dynamic camerawork. But, hey, we were happy as long as Clint kept us misty-eyed.
Fig 1 & 2 Hello, Mr. Oscar? Clint will see you now.
And yet, effortless has now become, well, careless. Towards the start of J Edgar there is a sequence in which a young, idealistic Hoover cycles (yup, cycles) to the scene of a bombing at the home of Senator CantRemeberHisNameCouldntFindItOnGoogle. The scene is lit so badly we barely see the figures in the din of the nightscape. Shadows linger over key figures in the scene. Furthermore, this is the crucial sequence which actually establishes Hoover’s pioneering ideas regarding forensic science; the birth of an eccentric genius. In the hands of David Fincher the crime scene would have been a blazing dystopia of Dante proportions, in the hands of a vintage Oliver Stone Hoover’s mad genius would have been portrayed via black and white/colour and digital/celluloid contrasts like a film students E Harmony video. Seriously, even a wildy inappropriate for the job Tim Burton would have made the scene a little goddamn intriguing.
Fig 3 Tim Burton’s J Edgar
Instead, huge moments are poorly blocked and edited. Eastwood is notorious for only shooting a handful of takes for any given shot and, like was the case with Hereafter, it really shows for the worse here. There is a hasty trip to a library that ends in a marriage proposal. The scene should look vast and ornate and the human element at work within the scene should feel tender. Instead, it seems done without care and achieves neither aesthetic beauty nor emotional resonation. Only the discovery of Lindberg baby, with its roots anchored firmly in the style of the horror genre, seems to stand out to this viewer as adequately planned and executed with care. Basically, this film is every bit as lazy as Joe-Cinephile, escaping his mom’s basement just long enough to dust off his least-finest wife-beater and slacks to go your movie theatre, munching popcorn so loudly John Goodman would blush.
Fig 4 Capitalism.
Of course, there are other chinks that we have come to expect in the Eastwood armour. Specifically, when it comes to his characters, he isn’t exactly subtle. Many (me) wondered if Danger ( the goofy kid that couldn’t fight) from Million Dollar Baby was about as subtle as the love child of Forrest Gump and the “purrdy mouth” rapist from Deliverance. Even the great Dirty Harry Callaghan was played by Clint with such ludicrous bombast that he basically seemed like the least professional guy since Monica Lewinski’s dry cleaner.
Fig. 5 It’s been a long time, I can make fun of this..
And, then, there is age approximation. Clearly, the 81 year old Clint is more comfortable with those who are too old for their jobs. Judi Dench, four score and upward, plays J Edar’s mom from the beginning of the film. Frankly, though a great actress, I don’t believe the 78 year old Dench as the mom of a ten year old. Sadly, at this stage in her great life, Dame Dench is now closer to Golden Girls than she is to Desperate Housewives. Furthermore, the 40-plus Naomi Watts is cutting close to scepticism as a preppy young secretary barely out of high school.
Of course, when they’re too young, Clint makes them look like this:
And, yet, I didn’t hate this movie. As a matter of fact, I was enthralled in moments. And, yes, at the film’s conclusion I will confess that I almost teared up for a moment in true Eastwood-blockbuster fashion. Why am I recommending this, in spite of so many faults? Because of that wimpy guy from Titanic of course!
Fig 7 Ugliness fail.
That’s right, Leo, you’ve done it again. Having diligently worked towards crafting a newfound macho image in the 2000s (Blood Diamond, The Departed, Inception), DiCaprio has once more gone tender. And, man, what a result! Leonardo DiCaprio makes us empathise with and invest ourselves in a man who blackmailed 6 Presidents, fired the guy who shot Dillinger, and sported a bizarre crew cut for over 70 years. Yes, this is a biased account of Hoover, but DiCaprio reminds us that moments of innocence can be captured in even the most misguided of moments. Whether it be a young Hoover doing push ups in his office, or an aged Hoover asking his secretary “Do I destroy everything I love?”, we realise that few actors could have played Hoover like this. Towards the end of the film, Hoover kisses the hand of his lifelong partner Clyde and wishes him goodnight. We feel the distance that these men have travelled and the pitiful finality of the moment. DiCaprio is the film’s principle achievement, by the time he was done I was ready to salute Old Glory with the rest of them.
So, if you're so inclined, watch this silly film for him.
Otherwise, he’ll punch you like he did those feathers