Film in Review: Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" an Uninspired Biopic of one of History’s Most Complex Men

Let me preface this review by saying that I showed up to the film,  J. Edgar late and had to sit to the left of the front row, so it could be said that my immediate criticism would be due to the lack of action on the bottom left side of the screen. Unfortunately, in director Clint Eastwoods latest film, the lack of action is the least of its problems, as the film is a lackluster and an uninspired biopic of one of history’s most complex men.

J. Edgar, the latest bit of Oscar-bait fodder from Clint Eastwood stars Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular J. Edgar Hoover, the nation’s first FBI director. Hoover’s story and rise to power is played out through a series of flashbacks as the elder Hoover dictates his memoirs to a series of low-level FBI agents. Through this perspective, we learn about the significant events of his life that led him to become one of the most notoriously powerful and controversial men in history.

Film in Review: Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" an Uninspired Biopic of one of History’s Most Complex Men

Judi Dench and Leonardo DiCaprio star in J. Edgar

Beginning with Hoover’s early days in the lowly Bureau of Investigation—a mismanaged and underfunded branch of the Justice Department—the film shows how the young and ambitious agent quickly moved up the ladder to become the Acting Director of the agency under the appointment of the Attorney General. The film then focuses on the major events in Hoover’s career as Acting Director, a role he retained until his prolonged death in 1972. We see his part in the gangster wars of the early 1930’s; his increased paranoia over subversion that resulted in his wire tapping people and places all over the country; and his role in the Lindbergh kidnapping that led to the creation of the FBI.

Interlaced between these events, the film attempts to deconstruct Hoover’s controversial and private life, including his intimate relationship with his Associate Director, Clyde Tolson (played by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer).  While the scholarly speculation of the romantic nature of their actual relationship varies from outright dismissal to almost certain, the film explores their relationship with restrain, leaning more towards the former. As soon as we’re introduced to Tolson’s character (played by The Social Network’s Armie Hammer), Eastwood gives us an overt wink as to his sexuality, but as the true nature of Hoover’s sexuality is presented as repressed and strained, their relationship never expounds further then a single kiss.

Instead, Eastwood lazily falls back on Hoover’s strangely intimate relationship with his mother (played by Dame Judi Dench) to account for his sexual repression.

The major problem with Eastwood’s film is that it feels less like a revealing and exploratory character study and more like a well-crafted adaptation of a Wikipedia page.

Eastwood’s direction of Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay seems to glaze over Hoover’s mysterious public persona like a soap-opera pulsating with juicy rumors and scandals. Furthermore, the characters seem to play out like caricatures of the real-life historical figures they’re meant to portray. It’s like watching an SNL parody of a J. Edgar Hoover History Channel biography.

The film boasts an all-star cast, but they all seem to fall short in their performances. The usually-excellent DiCaprio is too over-the-top as Hoover, and after three-quarters of the 137-minute film, his performance borders on annoyance.

Film in Review: Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" an Uninspired Biopic of one of History’s Most Complex Men

Naomi Watts stars in J. Edgar

Both Judi Dench and Naomi Watts (who plays Hoover’s life-long personal assistant Helen Gandy) are under-utilized and seem only to be present to fill out a star-studded cast. The only notable performance comes from Armie Hammer as Hoover’s loyal yet conflicted right-hand man, Tolson. Unfortunately, the character is so poorly developed he only really exists as a constant “nudge and wink” of Hoover’s repressed sexual identity.

I’m not sure if it’s Eastwood’s direction or Black’s screenplay, or a combination of both to blame for J. Edgar’s failure. Though, I am sure that somewhere within this cinematic mess lies a pretty decent film, but neither Eastwood nor Black were able to extract it.

Overall Grade: C-

J. Edgar opens today in theaters everywhere, click here for theaters and showtimes.