J. Edgar might have been a great film. I can’t clearly identify the things which might have made it great. I just know it wasn’t great because it left me unsatisfied. Perhaps it was because I was never sure where it was going or what it wanted to say. I suppose if you are making a film about a mysterious unusual man and you don’t want to sensationalize the story or dig too deeply into unsubstantiated rumours, the result might be exactly this kind of unsatisfying film. This might explain Clint Eastwood’s decision to make J. Edgar the way he did, but I was still disappointed.
J. Edgar is, of course, the story of J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI and one of the most powerful people in the U.S. for decades (until his death in 1972). While the film supplies some historical context, it was not enough for me to get a clear sense of what all Hoover was involved in during his many years in ‘power’. This is at least partly because the film focuses on the kind of man Hoover was and not so much on what he did. But for me to fully appreciate the story of who Hoover really was, I need to know more about what he did. How did Hoover’s personal life affect his work and the major events of which he was a part (the hints are there but I wanted more)? We know Hoover kept secret files on various politicians and leaders, but what was in them that had Nixon panicking at Hoover’s death?
Some critics have argued that Eastwood (or Dustin Lance Black, the writer of the screenplay) was too sympathetic towards Hoover, but that’s not the film I watched. What I saw was the depiction of a very disturbed, sad and lonely man who put his own obsessions and pride ahead of everything else. Sure, Hoover was also a genius who changed the science of criminal investigation forever. But behind that genius was a man obviously struggling with issues of sexual identity and, for most of his life, struggling under the thumb of an overbearing mother (the kind of mother one associates with sociopaths, not FBI directors).
Among J.Edgar’s many strengths were the period detail and the acting. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to impress me and will likely be nominated for an Academy Award for this role. Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts were excellent in major supporting roles and Judi Dench can do no wrong (as Hoover’s mother). But all that good acting could not overcome what I can only describe as a lacklustre screenplay. Clint Eastwood, one of the best directors out there, couldn’t put it all together this time, though I have to give him credit for making a film about a powerful figure as understated as he did.
I will give J.Edgar a solid ***. My mug is up, but the taste of what’s inside just doesn’t satisfy.