Ultimately, J. Edgar doesn’t work. Beautiful to look at, as are most of Eastwood’s films. And the acting is generally good. But there is a perspective conflict between the director and the screenwriter, and a conflict over which story is being told here: the personal relationship between Hoover and his associate Clyde Tolson, or the story of a conflicted man who was both ahead of his time and a captive of his own hardening tendencies toward control and egomania.
Both stories could have been interesting, but don’t coexist well here. The personal story–with the “Was he or wasn’t he?” and “Did he really put on a dress?” issues–is apparently supposed to be something of a mystery historically. But in a visual medium like film, we are presented with concrete images, and here, they just confuse. Physical expressions of attraction/affection are not alluded to or suggested, but are presented in ways that don’t add up, even to a mystery. OK, Tolson (Armie Hammer) is supposed to be the “more gay” of the couple. He says he loves J. Edgar, and is quite upset at J’s suggestion of marriage with Dorothy Lamour. Tolson initiates the “requisite” awkward kiss, after a physical fight, but J is simply angry about it. Then they just go back to the way things were. Historical data is supposed to be inconclusive on the matter, but this film doesn’t present maybes or mights. It presents actions that declare an attraction and emotional relationship, and then leaves us simply bewildered by the holes that are left narratively, and the bits and pieces of handholding, time spent, and affections declared that don’t add up to much of anything. Mystery and suggestion is fine; confusion, not so much.
The focus on the relationship could have been the heart of the story, and while the film tries and fails here, the other, stronger, story gets short shrift as well. J’s work with the FBI–creating, strengthening it, and eventually forming a department he wields with paranoia coupled with arrogance–is a fascinating story. The “let me tell you my story” angle the film uses is tiresome and borderline cliché. But the story of his rise to power, his early adoption of what we’d call modern investigative techniques, his misuse of power as the world changes and he doesn’t–that’s a great story. We get some of it here, but not nearly enough.
This tantalizing double failure is what ultimately hurts the film. And it gives no help to DiCaprio, one of finest mainstream actors. He handles each scene well, but I’m not convinced he found the complete character he was looking for. He’s stronger in the scenes of Hoover’s development of the Bureau, but seems a bit lost in the relationship scenes with Tolson. We see a fierce, intelligent, emotionally constricted man who becomes a paranoid power-broker in the former, and an actor trying to find the character that was written for him in the latter.
My wife, a singer, often jokes when she hears a soprano with a wide vibrato, “Pick a note!” My response here is similar: Pick a story! Put the secondary story in its place and focus on one of the main stories.
A couple of other thoughts: On the make-up… Yes, it seems as if DiCaprio’s old man makeup is less than wonderful, but it’s Hammer’s makeup that stuns. When we first see him as an old man in the daylight, it looks like a mask. Later, in nighttime scenes, in what I assume is the same general makeup, Hammer’s look is much more naturalistic. Yet in spite of Hammer’s valiant acting efforts as an old man–and he’s quite good–it’s hard not to be distracted.
Related to this is what I can only assume is a continual homage to 1941’s Citizen Kane. While the two films don’t compare overall, the similarity between the old J. Edgar in makeup to Orson Welles’ old man Kane is striking. Not sure what is trying to be said here, but if we are to recall that we ultimately don’t “get” Kane and that he remains a mysterious, frustrated egomaniac, then the comparison works here in J. Edgar. I only wish that suggestion, that mystery, was part of a more focused film.
Thanks to major film buff Clint Morgan (www.morgandesign.com) for the discussion that informed this piece.