Tuesday, November 15, 2011

J. Edgar (2011) – Review

Review: J. Edgar is a mix of things that work and things that do not work, but ultimately ends up being a good biography, just weighed down by odd and clumsy choices. The film is about the career of J. Edgar Hoover – his rise through the Justice Department becoming the founder of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to the power hungry seemingly out-of-touch petty old man still clinging to whatever power he has left. Director Clint Eastwood structures the film to be told through the writing of Hoover’s biography, cutting frequently between the past (mostly the 1920s and 1930s) and the present (1960s). The past reveals a man driven to create a better crime-stopping force, while dealing with issues of an over aggrandized ego and social awkwardness. The present however, just shows the man as sort of a wretch nefariously doing whatever to hang on to power and promote himself above all else, crippled by having to hide part of himself from the world. As a straight-forward biography, the film is at its best, and Eastwood’s style seems to be at its most comfortable – focusing on the look of the times, deeds and facts (though the film presents them as being a bit on the fuzzy side, as Hoover is an unreliable narrator/protagonist) is when the film is the most engaging and interesting. However, it is when Eastwood delves into Hoover’s character specifically the relationships that he has with his mother, life-long secretary Helen Gandy and friend/FBI colleague Clyde Tolson that the film seems to drag and not work. Sticking out the most are two factors: first, Eastwood’s piano score (especially in the scenes with his mother and later Clyde) feels completely wrong for the tone and takes the viewer out of the film. Second, the casting (and/or performances) is very uneven. Many scenes simply do not work primarily due to actors mismatched to roles, which is most prevalent in Hoover’s relationship with Tolson. Plus, Eastwood structuring the film to be about Hoover’s career as told by him disconnects the audience when it suddenly veers into ‘character scenes’ (again, especially those with his mother) as it halts the momentum. The film very well may have benefitted from a different structure – given the need to explain why Hoover was the way he was, while also reviewing his career highlights. The three characters closest to Hoover (his mother, secretary and best friend Clyde) are all quite strange, seemingly giving up their lives to solely support his, which makes them problematic as film characters as they really have no depth (maybe with the exception of Clyde who is actually given some dramatic beats) when they need to so that their relationships actually have meaning for the viewer. Rather than being fully fleshed out characters, they simply exist to help shape Hoover – who is very well fleshed out and with a great performance given by Leonardo DiCaprio is really the reason the film works at all or is interesting at all. DiCaprio carries every scene he is in. And while this is a film about Hoover, driving deeper into the supporting characters would have given the audience a better understanding of who these people were and why they acted the way they did towards Hoover, shaping him. As is, they just seem very odd, and tragic given the times and social perception of same-sex relationships (and maybe that is the point Eastwood wanted to make – not only was Hoover self-destructive to a certain extent, but he also ruined those closest to him as well). Despite J. Edgar’s many flaws, Eastwood does still manage to make a good biography, especially for those interested in the man, his deeds and the times.

Technical, aesthetic & acting achievements: Clint Eastwood has long established himself as one of the best auteur directors working today (even though I would argue that his last few efforts were not that strong). With J. Edgar, it is clear that he still has the ability to make a film with great aesthetics and performances (there are just structural and character issues). Eastwood has worked with the same team on his last five films to very good results (regardless of whether the film worked or not). Tom Stern’s cinematography is again excellent, and the very desaturated look matched both the tone of the film and character of Hoover. James J. Murakami’s production design is also very good, and challenging as he needed to work in multiple decades – and yet there is a style continuity that still exists throughout seamlessly. Eastwood provides his own score, as he often does (since 2003). It is not only the weakest of the artistic elements of the film, but also damages the narrative and tone overall as it does not work or fit at all, which is unfortunate. It completely disengages the audience and seems to bring the narrative momentum to a sudden and jarring (not in a good way) halt. Performance wise, J. Edgar is all over the place. Judi Dench is fine in her performance as Hoover’s mother, but her character is given no depth making all her scenes boring, as they bring the narrative to a stop, essentially (save for the ‘daffy’ scene). Naomi Watts is good as Hoover’s secretary, but is really given very little drama or acting to do. Armie Hammer seems completely miscast as Hoover’s best friend and colleague Clyde Tolson (just as Jeffrey Donovan seems awfully miscast as Robert Kennedy), or his performance is just off (and maybe both). He is given some dramatic scenes, but they seem to come too late and too few. DiCaprio, however, is very good as Hoover, which is a challenging role, playing a complex and issue-ridden man across multiple decades, who hides himself from the world his whole life in public and private – playing the character of the perfect moral man, if you will, while secretly feeling differently. Again, he completely carries the film and is the reason it works at all.

Summary & score: As a period biopic, J. Edgar is very good. But as a character drama, it does not work nearly well enough. However, the former carries the latter enough to make it a good film. 7/10

No comments:

Post a Comment