“J. Edgar” Movie Review

     Director Clint Eastwood returns again this year with a timely would be Oscar front runner with the new film “J. Edgar”, only this time he’s taken a curious misstep that leaves the film very unsatisfying.  As the title character, Leonardo DiCaprio is his usual solid self, bringing life to a historical figure many may be unfamiliar with. Though the acting is excellent throughout, the story is uneven and hard to follow.  You really never understand where the film is going or why.  Should we be rooting for the man, J. Edgar Hoover, responsible for the creation of the FBI as we know it today?  Is this mainly a character study, meant to lift the vail of what is most certainly a very complicated man?  I really can’t answer either question, as the film leaves a lot to be desired.  It spans over 5 decades of history, but never really goes deep enough into any historical event to really give the audience a reason to emotionally attach itself.  I think that’s a mistake on the filmmaker’s part.

     J. Edgar rises quickly through the ranks of the old “Bureau of Investigation” and after only seven years of service, he is named the Director and begins to shape the new “FBI” by demanding such things as college degrees and physically fit candidates.  He also brings police work out of the dark ages, creating some of the first criminal forensic labs and convicting people with evidence gained from the laboratory.  As with anyone who pushes so much change, he is met with his skeptics, but he begins very early doing something that is smart for someone who is in such a high place in the political world.  J. Edgar famously kept files on the Presidents he worked under, which included audio recordings and transcripts of some of the most powerful men in our history doing things they probably shouldn’t have been doing. The files were kept under the watchful eye of his trusted secretary Helen Gandy who worked with J. Edgar for nearly his entire career.

     If you follow this sort of thing, you probably are aware of unconfirmed reports that J. Edgar was gay and also liked to wear women’s clothes from time to time.  The film touches on this ever so carefully.  I’m not sure where Eastwood stands on this, but he does include a strange scene shortly after J. Edgar’s mother dies where he is seen wearing his mother’s clothing and jewelry.  Furthermore, there is the relationship between J. Edgar and his number two man at the FBI, Clyde Tolson who is played by Armie Hammer. 

     Early on, J. Edgar is hand picking his agents based on a very specific set of standards.  When he interviews Tolson, those standards go out the window for what I’m presuming was some level of attraction.  With Tolson an Agent for just over two years, J. Edgar promotes him to the number two position in the Bureau and a decades long relationship ensues.  Strangely enough, there are only hints the two of them have a gay relationship.  They certainly do a lot off duty together and in one scene where J. Edgar suggests there “needs to be a Mrs. Hoover”, a violent confrontation occurs because Tolson is clearly not on the same page.  Whether J. Edgar was gay or not doesn’t matter, but with the amount of time Eastwood spends on the possibility, you’d think we would get some sort of definitive answer rather than forcing us to go back into the history books.

     Speaking of history books, the film passes through a number of important historical events but never really shows us how J. Edgar and the FBI handled these events.  Case in point.  When the film passes through the day when John F. Kennedy is shot and killed, J. Edgar is shown picking up the phone and calling Robert Kennedy to tell him his brother had been shot.  That’s it.  We never get to see how J. Edgar handled the situation, nor do we get to see any of its aftermath.  I mean, the FBI did something that day right?

     A trademark of Eastwood’s films to me have always been that of quality.  Why then did Armie Hammer’s old man makeup instantly remind me of Johnny Knoxville’s old man suit in Jackass?  Seriously, every time Hammer appears in that makeup on screen, I half expected a pair of old man balls to fall out of his pants!  Point being, it looked incredibly fake and I can’t believe Eastwood allowed it to pass.  Since the makeup job leaves Hammer unrecognizable, why not simply employ an older actor for those scenes?  Certainly a highly disappointing aspect of the film.

     Overall, I feel DiCaprio’s performance will likely warrant some awards consideration but what’s missing from this film may come back to haunt him.  After sitting through this, I kept imagining how easily it could’ve been better.  Instead, we’re left with numerous unanswered questions such as the fact that Helen Gandy destroyed all of the secret files upon J. Edgar’s death, so its not like we’ll really ever know the juicy stuff he had on his bosses anyway.  GRADE: D