By Brian Lafferty
November 11, 2011 (San Diego) – As a critic it’s easy to look at a film and say something like, “It would have been better if they did this.” The flaw of such logic is that there’s no guarantee that the replacements or additions would be any better than what made it onto the screen. Nor would excising a scene or plot necessarily benefit the movie.
J. Edgar severely tested my personal rule on reviewing only what’s on the screen. It’s a very frustrating biopic. It’s a colossal misfire in the screenplay department. It’s unfortunate, considering that the script was penned by Dustin Lance Black, the screenwriter of Milk, which was one of best movies of 2008.
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio buried under gobs and gobs of old-man make-up) dictates the beginning of the F.B.I.’s history. It bounces back and forth between the 1920s and 1930s and the 1960s and 1970s. During that time he’s appointed director of the F.B.I., combats organized crime, goes after suspected Communists, and spends most of the film spearheading the Lindbergh kidnapping case. He falls for colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and they have a secret affair until J. Edgar’s death in the early 1970s.
Black’s screenplay makes two mistakes. The first is that the script focuses on the wrong things. It’s objective, I know, but I grew frustrated with his script’s focus on the gay relationship and the Lindbergh kidnapping case when there were other more significant moments during Hoover’s tenure. What made it so wrong to me was that in reality, Hoover had little to no involvement in the kidnapping investigation. The relationship between him and Tolson is speculative.
Lest you think I’m breaking my own personal rule about reviewing what’s not on the screen, I want to point out that what was on the screen is unsatisfactory. The relationship between Hoover and Tolson feels more contrived than genuine. The Lindbergh kidnapping is nothing more than C.S.I. set in the 1930s. When it does get to the most important and controversial moments of J. Edgar’s career, Black glosses over them so lightly that it’s insulting. What makes it even more offensive is that the film acknowledges, through the unreliable narrator trope, that Hoover had no involvement in the kidnapping case; he was so egotistical he thought he did.
Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance is as exaggerated as the heavy make-up he’s buried under. His accent is terrible; at times it sounds like he’s straining. He tries way too hard but it’s not a bad performance; it’s ambition inspires more admiration than derision.
The make-up is another matter. It looks so weird and unconvincing that, combined with DiCaprio’s Oscar bait performance, it nearly makes a mockery of the man. DiCaprio’s face is buried in inches upon inches of latex to the point where he doesn’t look like the venerable and dangerous F.B.I. Director. Instead, he looks like Leonardo DiCaprio in old man’s make-up.
The one person who emerges from this mess unscathed is cinematographer Tom Stern. His photography is Academy Award caliber. He shoots many scenes with low-key lighting, which, like film noir, creates lots of hard shadows. The desaturated colors give the 1920s and 1930s a vintage charm. His camera constantly swoops across and around the action, paralleling Hoover’s paranoia-consumed mind.
Astoundingly, J. Edgar is a very fast-moving two hours and seventeen minutes. That didn’t count for much when I left the theater unsatisfied and upset. Dustin Lance Black is a great screenwriter who’s capable of telling an emotionally compelling story about controversial and complicated men, like he did in Milk. I know that even if he excised the Lindbergh kidnapping plot, cut down on the romance and instead focused on stuff like the Civil Rights Movement, his “personal files,” and other more infamous (and true) moments in his tenure, that there’s no guarantee the film would have been any better. But what’s on the screen is an utter disappointment.
J. Edgar is now playing in local theaters.
A Warner Brothers release. Director: Clint Eastwood. Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black. Cinematography: Tom Stern. Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, and Judi Dench. 137 minutes. Rated R.