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Movie Review: J. Edgar

November 11, 2011

J. Edgar – A Warner Bros. Pictures’ Release

Release Date: November 11th, 2011

Rated PG for mature theme, language may offend

Running time: 137 minutes

Clint Eastwood (dir.)

Dustin Lance Black (writer)

Clint Eastwood (music)

Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover

Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson

Judi Dench as Annie Hoover

Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy

Jeffrey Donovan as Robert Kennedy

Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh

Gunner Wright as Dwight Eisenhower

David A. Cooper as Franklin Roosevelt

Brady Matthews as Inspector

Ed Westwick as Agent Smith

©Warner Bros. Pictures.  All Rights Reserved.

John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in J. Edgar.

Our reviews below:


J. Edgar Review By John C.

** (out of 4)

From the Man with No Name to Dirty Harry, Clint Eastwood is an iconic actor who has directed some brilliant films over the last few decades, including Best Picture winners Unforgiven (1992) and Million Dollar Baby (2004).  These unforgettable facts just make his latest outing as a director, the lackluster J. Edgar, that much more disappointing.  This is a largely uneventful biopic of a controversial subject, with a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black that would have been better suited as a cable miniseries.

John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was the acting director of the Bureau of Investigation for a total of 48 years, and was instrumental in founding the FBI in 1935.  Obsessed with finding a better way to study evidence left behind at crime scenes and cataloguing criminals by the imprints on their fingers, Hoover put together a team including his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and close assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).  To be sure, his story is an interesting one that spans several decades of American political history.

One of the most controversial things that the movie deals with is the fact that J. Edgar Hoover had an inseparable relationship with Clyde Tolson.  But the issue of Hoover’s sexuality is largely ignored for the first part of the film, only really coming into play in the last hour.  The two overdone scenes that openly address his sexual orientation and possible tendencies towards wearing women’s clothing are some of the worst in the film.  The former is a ridiculously awkward fight that ends with a kiss, and the latter plays as one of the strangest homages to Psycho that I have ever seen as J. Edgar puts on his mother’s (Judi Dench) dress and necklace.

The production design of J. Edgar is often admirable, but a stylish visual look can’t hide the sometimes exaggerated performances from the talented cast and an often disjointed screenplay.  Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar a few years ago for writing the excellent Milk, but his screenplay here leaves much to be desired.  Without some knowledge of historical events, it is sometimes hard to define exactly what decade we are supposed to be in.  In certain scenes, the dialogue between characters is obvious and melodramatic, often to the point where it is difficult to discern exactly what tone was meant to be reached.  This is all topped off with a surprisingly uninvolving performance from Leonardo DiCaprio that makes it hard to feel any sympathy for his character.  This is far from the actor’s best work.

But the biggest problem that I have with J. Edgar lies in the makeup.  As the film spans several decades, it requires the actors to play their characters throughout their entire adulthood.  The aging done to Leonardo DiCaprio and Naomi Watts is just okay, although it would have been more acceptable on stage or in a TV movie.  But Armie Hammer’s performance as an old man is nothing short of laughable, with unbelievably terrible makeup that renders him looking like the villain in a bad horror movie.  I kept waiting for the prosthetic mask to fall right off his face.  They should get the ball rolling early on a Razzie campaign for worst makeup.  Yes, it really is that bad.

Aside from a handful of fine scenes, J. Edgar is all over the place.  As we get farther into the overlong 137-minute running time, it sometimes feel more like an endurance test than a night at the movies.  This is an Oscar hopeful that falls flat and a story about a controversial subject during an interesting time in American history that ranks as one of the biggest disappointments of the year.  This is a misfire for both Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio, but I trust that they will be able to redeem themselves with their next films, which will hopefully be more engaging than the underwhelming J. Edgar.


J. Edgar Review by Erin V.  

**1/2 (out of 4)

 J. Edgar tells the interesting story of J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI, and I must start off by saying that the film is fine and could be considered a good one – should you have discovered it as a made-for-tv film.  Unfortunately, this is a Clint Eastwood film coming out in the heat of Oscar season, and as a contender, it just doesn’t stand up.

Leonardo DiCaprio plays the title character – both as a young man and as a senior.  Despite playing much of the role with a similar expression on his face, his acting ability is still quite clear.  Dame Judi Dench plays Hoover’s mother, and while she is good as always, she doesn’t get much chance to really show it off in this role.  Armie Hammer [The Social Network] plays Edgar’s number two man Clyde Tolson, and does fine, except in the portions in the later years.  Which leads us to one of the major flaws in this film.  The makeup.

In order to age the actors (all in the approx. 25-40 range) to play people in their 70’s, there are prosthetics used over their faces.  Unfortunately, in particular is the case with Armie Hammer, they don’t just mask their youth, but mask their acting – and look a bit like Halloween decorations at times.  The look of his mask made me have to stifle laughter at an inappropriate time during the movie, because I couldn’t concentrate on the actual content of the screen.  DiCaprio on the other hand manages to do ok with the mask – which is not quite as wax looking – allowing his overall posture to convey age more than anything else, something Hammer didn’t quite do.  Naomi Watts’ mask as Hoover’s secretary, Helen Gandy, is the most realistic looking of the three.  One hypothesis to the quality of the masks could be that Hammer was aged the most, Watts the least, but still…

Overall though, the acting is fine in this film – not Oscar great, but well done.  The script is, again, fine but not Oscar worthy in my opinion.  But then you consider that this is the screenwriter who wrote the Oscar-winning Milk.  At times the dialogue is a little stilted and the cross back and forth between time periods a little disjointed.  The running time for the film is also a bit ambitious, coming in at 2 hrs., 17 mins., which in itself is fine for a film, unless like here it causes me to check my watch no less than ten times throughout.

The rest of the technical side of things was fine.  The sets looked believable to the time period – although a bit of varied camera and lighting work could have better distinguished the timeline, because the makeup sometimes seemed the only clue.  The editing worked… for the most part – a hilarious scene comes to mind, where the young actors go into an elevator and come out again old, which was strange to see.  The score done by Clint Eastwood is fine as well, despite being nothing standout and often using preconceived pieces, some of which matched scenes better than others.  To be honest, by the time the film ended, I didn’t really remember the original score all that much.

All in all, while not inherently bad, this is simply not the Oscar bait it seemed to want to be.  I can’t really recommend seeing this one in a theatre, as it will lose nothing and possibly be enjoyed more on DVD.


J. Edgar Review by Nicole

**1/4 (out of 4)

Sometimes it takes a unique mind to revolutionize society.  That was the case with J. Edgar Hoover, the founder of the FBI.  Told through flashbacks by an old J. Edgar (Leonardo DiCaprio), the movie depicts how he used his attention to details, as well as his perseverative behaviour traits to preserve evidence at crime scenes to solve crimes and convict dangerous criminals.  His crime solving techniques, as well as his awkward social interactions, suggest he may have had undiagnosed Asperger’s syndrome.   The movie also depicts J. Edgar’s close, lifelong companionship with his partner Clyde (Armie Hammer).

J. Edgar Hoover’s story is interesting, and so is the movie at times.  However, it could have been done better.  The makeup used to age Armie Hammer did not look believable.  The aging on Leonardo DiCaprio was better, but still not perfect.   Their acting seemed somewhat wooden at times, both in the flashbacks and their senior years.  Their lines also sometimes seemed contrived and melodramatic.  But despite all the negative aspects, this is no worse than an average TV movie.  J. Edgar is definitely worth renting, especially if you are interested in law or social work.


J. Edgar Review by Maureen

**1/2 (out of 4)

How can anyone really know what went on in FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover’s mind or private life?  Renowned director Clint Eastwood and Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black attempt to show us in the biopic J. Edgar, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role.

The film opens with a much older J. Edgar dictating his life story to an assistant with a typewriter.  The story moves back and forth in time starting with a serious young federal agent, J. Edgar Hoover in 1919, a post WWI America where foreigners were perceived as threats to national security and federal agents had little power to act against perceived or real threats.  A man with incredible attention to detail and more than a touch of paranoia, J. Edgar Hoover saw flaws in how the government handled investigations and would spend his whole life changing how evidence and information was gathered and handled.  The result was the FBI everyone is familiar with today.  As J. Edgar says at one point in the movie, “information is power.”

The story of J. Edgar Hoover is actually fascinating.  It’s too bad that the film J. Edgar didn’t feel as gripping as it could have been.  The film does introduce us to key characters including J. Edgar’s mother (Judi Dench), his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and J. Edgar’s personal assistant and closest friend, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).  The flashbacks to the past are done well in terms of authentic feeling sets and costuming.

It’s when the characters are aged that J. Edgar falls short.  In particular Armie Hammer’s aging makeup just didn’t look right to me.  He looked like a younger man wearing an old man mask.  The other characters aged more believably.  The other area where J. Edgar falls short is any real sense of connection between the characters.  The performances by the leads didn’t feel as believable or strong as I had hoped they would be.  Perhaps if Leonardo DiCaprio had played J. Edgar with more than just a pained, serious expression on his face for most of the film I might have felt some empathy for the character.  Some of the scenes fell completely flat for me.  In particular, the ‘fight and kiss’ scene between J. Edgar and Clyde, and the scene with a grieving J. Edgar trying on his just deceased mother’s necklace and dress just didn’t work.

There were some nice moments, such as when an older J. Edgar tenderly kisses the post-stroke Clyde on top of his head.  The near-wordless scene showed some real emotion.  All-in-all, as interesting as the story of J. Edgar Hoover might be, this biopic is the kind more suited to watching at home on your own flat-screen.  Audiences might want to wait for DVD or pay-per-view.  Kudos to Clint Eastwood for trying to breathe life into this story and for the really nice score he composed for the film.  J. Edgar is not bad, just not as good as it could have been.


J. Edgar Review by Tony

**1/2 (out of 4)

J. Edgar dramatizes the life and career of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), the founding director of the FBI for nearly a half century until his death in 1972. The film shifts back and forth between earlier flashbacks and Hoover dictating self-serving memoirs near the end of his life. As a young law graduate in the Justice Department obsessed with threats to American values when a number of anarchist bombs went off in 1919, Hoover convinced his superiors to set up a special investigation force under him. The Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) baby kidnapping case and depression bank robberies led to more resources for what became the FBI. Over the years Hoover ruthlessly collected incriminating information on anyone who might challenge his power, including presidents. Hoover was obsessively reminded of his calling by his mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lived until her death. Though awkward around women, he found in Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) a loyal personal secretary on whom he could rely to guard his secret files. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) became his deputy and lifelong companion.

Written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood, at over two hours J. Edgar is an ambitious film impressively covering the sweep of American history and the role of Hoover’s FBI, not always for the better. Unfortunately, Hoover’s brooding obsessive character portrayed by DiCaprio is particularly unattractive, changing little over the almost 50 years of his career aside from natural aging. Hammer’s Tolson fares much worse, his old age form risibly distracting. As Mother, Judi Dench is ok, but only Naomi Watts comes out looking good throughout. The large supporting cast largely in the background is generally adequate, though I expected more than dropped “r’s” for a convincing Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan). The musical score by Eastwood, including a few period tunes and Goldberg Variations, is good.


Consensus: Although Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar features some admirable production design and a decent leading performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, it is seriously held back by an uneven screenplay and laughable old age makeup.  **1/2 (Out of 4)

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