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Zach Manges
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Where to begin? Jarring narration, shallow characters, bad lighting ...
Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for his role.
Leonardo DiCaprio deserves an Oscar for his role.
January 10, 2012

Directed by: Clint Eastwood

Release date: 2011

Length: 137 minutes

Rated: R


With winter movie season finally here, one might expect we’ve seen the last of so-so film productions. However, Hollywood manages to slip in one more film of barely adequate quality. In this dry biopic of the first-ever FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover, viewers must endure an odd storytelling style, almost nonexistent character development, and LeonardoDiCaprio in plump, geriatric makeup. Unfortunately enough for ticket-buyers, the makeup is the most impressive aspect of this movie.

The narrative leap-frogs haphazardly between young and old J. Edgar, as we see the director, in a state of waning health, dictating his memoirs to young typists. In the process, the powerful man is forced to face some personal demons as he reviews the poor choices he’s made and relationships he’s tarnished.  The result is wholly unsatisfying, at best.

Despite the benefit of seeing Hoover at various points throughout his life, the film does a mediocre job of piecing them together and keeping the viewer fully aware of where the story stands, as these flashbacks aren’t necessarily in chronological order. By the end, viewers have a decent picture of John Edgar Hoover, though the result may resemble one of Picasso’s portraits.

Where the film most disappoints is in its refusal to more deeply explore Hoover’s legacy.  Several speculative leaps are taken regarding Hoover’s romantic life and emotional instability, which are enjoyable and creative in the context of the story, but are never taken to places where the viewer wants them to go. So much interpretation is left to viewers that, in many ways, the film feels unfinished and will no doubt leave some people wondering, “What, exactly, am I supposed to feel for this man?”  I never got a clear answer to this question, and I doubt other viewers will either. 

Fortunately, the actual performances are solid throughout. The acting is rich and full-bodied from every big name.  DiCaprio steals the show as Hoover, showing raveled complexity and a pious sense of worth. His mastery of Hoover’s speaking style and accent, as well, deserves special commendation.  Dame Judi Dench is cold and unlikable (as she should be) as the overbearing and distant mother to the FBI director. Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s right-hand man and potential lover, is endearing and perhaps more deeply human than any other character in the film. His earnest interactions with J. Edgar and the subsequent fallout will make you hate the title character, at least to some degree.

All in all, while J. Edgar turns in some very solid (and perhaps Oscar-worthy in DiCaprio’s case) performances, its numerous shortcomings can be more than distracting. Putting aside the erratically bopping storyline and shallow character exploration, the lighting system seems determined to wash out every face, and it’s downright irksome.

The most avid of history buffs may find value in tracing Hoover’s hand in various events, but there’s little else here worth most people’s time. My advice is to pass by this one and save your nickels instead for some upcoming fare.  I’d give it a 4.5 out of 10.

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