Arts and Culture

'J Edgar'

Put out a manhunt for Clint Eastwood before he kills (a film's potential) again.

By Steve Burgess 12 Nov 2011 |

Steve Burgess writes about film and culture every other week on The Tyee. Find his previous stories here.

If Hoover was alive, heads would be rolling over J Edgar. It's not just that the late chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is shown here putting on his late mother's clothes in a moment of grief, although that surely wouldn't make the old bulldog happy. No, J Edgar would likely be the target of a full FBI investigation into just how director Clint Eastwood, producer Ron Howard and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black managed to take such a fascinating subject and screw it up so badly. By turns dull, grim and risible, it's another in the long line of epic biographies that manage to kill their subjects all over again.

FBI Chief John Edgar Hoover served eight presidents and pretty much invented the bureau that exists today. He battled domestic communists, leftists, gangsters, the Kennedys and Martin Luther King. He was rumoured to be a cross-dresser and the longtime lover of his personal assistant, Clyde Tolson. That's all covered in J Edgar, but I defy anyone who sits through this two-and-a-half-hour movie to give a shit.

Hoover is played by Leo DiCaprio, and there may be no more definitive way of breaking with your past as a heartthrob. He looks alarmingly appropriate as the older Hoover, although his "Bawston" accent is really no better than Mayor Quimby's. Judy Dench is young Johnny's domineering mother. Naomi Watts plays potential love interest Helen Gandy, who turns down Hoover's proposal and instead becomes his lifelong secretary, part of the triumvirate that eventually includes the handsome Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. Hammer was last seen playing both of the Winklevoss brothers in The Social Network, with the help of digital trickery. Special effects are also key to this performance, but not so happily. Aged with makeup and prosthetics for the later scenes, Hammer ends up looking like a white Herman Munster.

Can't dress this up

Gangster movies thrive on action. Hoover hated gangsters -- maybe that's why J Edgar is so static. Hoover's early battles, with both evildoers and bureaucrats, are generally played out here in dark offices and congressional hearings, all depicted in that colour-drained style that's been popular for historical flicks ever since Saving Private Ryan. A lot of movies throw in gratuitous action scenes, but J Edgar, blessed with any number of legitimate options, for the most part prefers to avoid them. This would be noble if the movie was smart and savvy enough to draw us into Hoover's world and the history of 20th century America. I suppose it tries. Fail.

In time-honoured screenwriting tradition, J Edgar cuts back and forth between eras, bouncing from the '30s to the '60s. We see Hoover working on the Lindbergh kidnapping case, then trying to get dirt on King, then launching publicity-seeking raids on the likes of Alvin (Creepy) Karpis. Hoover's mother goes from her death bed to spry, and back to death's door again. As can happen with bio pics, the historical base-touching seems rote, not to mention tedious.

There have been plenty of rumours about Hoover's private life. Here J Edgar dives right in, inventing all manner of speculative scenes including a violent lover's quarrel between Hoover and Tolson, and a scene of a grieving Hoover trying on his dead mother's dress and jewelry. In its final reels, J Edgar shoots for an emotional payoff that is as unexpected as it is mawkish. Piano music tinkles and Hammer tries manfully to emote from behind two inches of prosthetic rubber as we belatedly discover that this has been a tender love story all along.

Public ennui

The laziness of Black's script is most obvious in the treatment of Gandy and Tolson. In life, they were Hoover's brain trust. Here they flip back and forth between roles as Hoover's faithful servants and his conscience -- whatever the scene requires. In the climactic encounter, Tolson morphs into Basil Exposition as he explains to the audience that a lot of what we have seen on screen has been pure fantasy -- a jarring realization that has not really been hinted at previously.

Jimmy Cagney shows up here courtesy of film clips from Public Enemy and G Men. I'm sure I wasn't the only viewer to wish I was watching one of those classics instead. The last word on J Edgar goes to the woman sitting two seats away from me at the preview screening. "Wow," she said as the credits finally rolled. "That was the longest free movie ever."

[Tags: Film]  [Tyee]

Read more: Film

Share this article

The Tyee is supported by readers like you

Join us and grow independent media in Canada

Get The Tyee in your inbox


The Barometer

Is it high time that stations pulled “Baby, It’s Cold Outside”?

Take this week's poll