J. Edgar: This Movie Is History

by admin November 18, 2011 10:09 am
J. Edgar: This Movie Is History

The release of a Clint Eastwood-directed Oscar hopeful has come to be one of the hallmarks of the holiday season, right up there with Black Friday sales, Christmas decorations and yet another live-action Chipmunks sequel. Since 2003's Mystic River, the iconic actor/filmmaker has released at least one prestige picture (and sometimes two) almost every year at around this time looking for box-office success and awards love. Sometimes it works (Million Dollar Baby, Letters From Iwo Jima) and other times, it doesn't (Flags of our Fathers, Hereafter). Based on the underwhelming reviews and grosses of his latest film, J. Edgar, an expansive biopic of the legendary FBI director written by Oscar-winning Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, this is shaping up to be one of his off years.

Since its release last Wednesday, J. Edgar has taken in a middling $13 million. That's a slightly better opening than Eastwood's last two movies, 2010's Hereafter and 2009's Invictus, but going into a Thanksgiving weekend packed with blockbusters like the new Twilight flick and such cheery family fare as The Muppets, this somber mood piece is unlikely to be the first film of choice among moviegoers. As of now, a roughly $40 million final gross seems likely, the same number its predecessors finished with. The mediocre reviews have put a damper on the movie's awards heat as well; while DiCaprio still has a shot at a Best Actor nod and the period touches could translate into a few technical nods, don't expect to see Black or Eastwood repeat in their respective categories. So what went wrong with J. Edgar? Here are five reasons why we think the movie fell short:

1. It Tries to Do Too Much
Summing up an entire life in a mere two-hour movie is almost always a fool's errand, particularly when your subject has as complex and rich a history as Hoover. Structured primarily as a series of flashbacks, J. Edgar begins with the FBI director as an old man (DiCaprio, hidden underneath pounds of old-age makeup), dictating his memoirs to a rotating crew of younger FBI agents -- one of whom is played by Gossip Girl's Ed Westwick of all people -- which span his appointment to the Bureau of Investigation in 1919 to Nixon's 1972 election. (The film's final twenty minutes depict his death that same year.) It's a lot of ground to cover and while Black manages to keep the chronology relatively clear, his screenplay groans under the weight of too much material. In this case, breadth should have been sacrificed for brevity.

2. It Lets a Great Slice of History Slip Away
One approach Black could have taken to the movie would have been to focus specifically on a formative incident in the life of Hoover and the nascent crime-busting organization he helped build. A formative incident like, say, the infamous kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby in 1932. Over the objections of the New Jersey police -- and Lindbergh himself, who launched his own private investigation -- the state governor asked the Bureau of Investigation to get involved. Although the child was later found dead, Hoover smartly used the tragedy to convince the U.S. Congress to pass legislation that declared kidnapping a federal crime that would fall under his jurisdiction. He also had his crack team of researchers continue the investigation and, two years later, connected the crime to German immigrant Bruno Richard Hauptmann, who was summarily tried and executed. This fascinating piece of history is recounted in the movie -- in fact, it's the source of some of its best scenes -- but it has all the elements for a great standalone thriller into which Black and Eastwood would have been able to fold the story of Hoover's ambitions both for himself and the newly-rechristened Federal Bureau of Investigation. Better yet, because the entire story took place within a four year span in the '30s, DiCaprio would never have had to done that old-age makeup that makes him resemble a wax mummy.

3. It Needs More Armie Hammer
As good as DiCaprio is -- and he's very good, indeed -- the movie's most interesting character isn't Hoover... it's the man standing behind Hoover. That would be Clyde Tolson, Hoover's right-hand man and -- as has been widely speculated -- his lover. Tolson is played by Armie Hammer, who made a big impression as the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network and is just as strong a presence here. It's a good thing that Hammer is so charismatic because, as written by Black, Tolson is something of an enigma, probably because he led such a fiercely private life. A movie centered around him as opposed to Hoover probably would have been more speculative than factual, but it would also have been more interesting as a piece of drama.

4. It's Deeply Conflicted About Its Central Character
Under Hoover's leadership, the FBI became the robust and celebrated agency it is today, both in the news headlines and broader popular culture (seriously, more than a few actors -- looking at you, David Duchovny -- owe their livelihood to Hoover since they got their big breaks by playing FBI agents). But he also was a petty, vindictive man who all too often used the power of his office to settle private scores. That dichotomy is interesting in theory, but in execution it too often feels like Eastwood and Black are uncertain how to reconcile Hoover's contradictions. The film's final moments seem particularly confused, almost elevating his death to a kind of tragedy and seeming to suggest that as bad as he could be, there were opportunists around him -- like Nixon -- who were worse.

5. It Fails To Make Hoover Relevant to Today's Audiences
It's to the film's credit that it doesn't work overtime to draw parallels between the past and the present. Aside from a few on-the-nose comments from Hoover about how protecting the country from terrorists trumps small details like civil liberties, Black and Eastwood are careful not to spell out in big, bold letters Why Hoover Matters. At the same time, though, there has to be some aspect to his story that contemporary moviegoers can relate to or see reflected in their own lives. And that's what J. Edgar is missing. For a figure that once (and still does, in some respects) loomed so large, the movie's depiction of him feels almost too small and self-contained. We come away from the film with a basic grasp on the broad outlines of Hoover's life, but not really who he was. Ultimately, J. Edgar feels like more of a staid museum piece than a vital bit of moviemaking.

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