J. Edgar Review: Leonardo DiCaprio's Towering Performance Is Reason To See This

J. Edgar is a good movie telling a great story, but it feels like a free throw that bounces off the front edge of the rim, never quite crossing the threshold into greatness and is let down in all departments but the acting.

rating: 3.5

"We are the sinners." The words spoken by Annie Hoover (Dame Judi Dench) midway through Clint Eastwood's semi-fictional biopic on J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) truly sum up the crux of Clint Eastwood's new film. In a era where gangsters were glorified as celebrities and much of the citizenry turned it's collective consciousness to more frivolous matters, it took the resolve of a select few individuals with the steadfastness to define the differences between criminal and hero. Some say actions speak louder than words. J. Edgar Hoover found a unique balance of the two, using both effectively to rise to prominence as one of the most polarizing figures in American history. While there is no doubt to the fact that Hoover was responsible for the development and evolution of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, it's far more speculative on whether he was a cross dressing homosexual with mommy issues. It looks like Eastwood believed the latter, or at least understood that it would make for better cinema. J Edgar covers an enormous time span, from Hoover's beginning as a fledgling agent in the early 20's straight through to his death in 1972. I understand Eastwood wanted to give us as complete a picture of the man as possible, but instead of maintaining a point A to point B timeline, we hopscotch around between decades which invites viewer confusion. What we are left with is an uneven journey that struggles to find a steady rhythm. We get to hear the story directly from an older Hoover as he dictates his point of view to various agency scribes. Eastwood intersperses these sessions with flashes back to the actual events and ties much of the innuendo regarding Hoover's indiscretions into these scenes. Over the course of the movie we learn of Hoover's involvement in taking down many of the country's biggest gangsters, such as John Dillinger, spend a copious amount of time obsessing about the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and barely skim whatever issues he had with Martin Luther King Jr. It's important to understand all of this when telling a story about J. Edgar Hoover. All of these events played a role in developing today's FBI and the way our country goes about investigating crime, but the heart of this film lies in examining the man that the public didn't see. The broken, tortured man, whose behind the curtain indiscretions are what leave question marks on his overall legacy even today. Who was J. Edgar Hoover? It can certainly be said that he was an egomaniacal, obsessive personality that would stop at nothing to get what he felt he needed to maintain his stature within Washington. He thrived in the spotlight and was quick to take the credit for any and all success that the bureau had. If you got in his way, you were likely to find yourself tucked away in a corner desk, doomed to spend the rest of your career pushing paper. Always paranoid and fearful of losing his grip on his destiny, Hoover advocated for processes and procedures that gave his organization a level of power unlike any seen previously. It didn't matter that oftentimes it took a blurring of the lines of legality in order to achieve the end result. It's pretty clear that Hoover had some mommy issues. Judi Dench portrays a proud woman who clearly loves her son, as long as he is willing to live up to the enormous standards that she has placed on him. Basically it's a course of action that requires him to stand tall, speak clearly and become the most powerful man in the world in order to bring honor back to the family. Oh, and don't be gay. Okay? No pressure, Mother loves you. Now run along. Can you imagine for a second if any of the suspected indiscretions of this man are true, how did this guy not pitch himself off a Washington high rise at some point? I'm of the opinion that Leonardo DiCaprio is pound for pound the best actor in Hollywood today without a golden statue on his mantle. I would suspect his turn here will warrant some discussion amongst those who nominate for next year's awards. The sheer enormity of this character combined with a brutally cumbersome amount of dialogue speaks volumes to the talent he brings to his films. Much is being said about the job Armie Hammer does in portraying Hoover's number two and suspected lover, Clyde Tolson. While I certainly don't want to deemphasize the job Hammer does, he doesn't particularly stand out to me as anything special. Much can be said for the entire cast which, besides the aforementioned Hammer and Judi Dench, also included Naomi Watts as Hoover's longtime secretary and confidant Helen Gandy. All of these people were fine in their respective roles. They did nothing to harm the movie whatsoever, but to praise any of them for turning in a performance above and beyond the call would be a bit shortsighted. This was DiCaprio's vehicle to drive, and much like the character he portrays, he stands tallest. I think it needs to be said that the makeup job converting young Hoover and Tolson into older versions of themselves was pure and simply abysmal. I had heard some rumblings about this prior to viewing, but figured it couldn't be as bad as some were purporting it to be. I was wrong. While the makeup on DiCaprio as old Hoover was pretty bad, it might have been forgivable had it stood alone. Unfortunately, whoever was responsible for old Tolson's look should probably be relegated to sharpening pencils and coffee runs. The prosthetics used on these men were shockingly distracting, to the point that is was difficult to look beyond and focus on the story being told. What possessed Eastwood to feel this worked baffles me. Ultimately, J. Edgar is a good movie, but it feels like a free throw that bounces off the front edge of the rim, never quite crossing the threshold into greatness. I have to say the fault here lies mostly with Eastwood. His choppy direction and scattershot pacing likely will doom J. Edgar to the pile of "also-rans" come award season.

J. Edgar was released in the U.S. on Friday but doesn't open in the UK until January 20th, 2012.
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A pop culture junkie with an affinity for bad horror movies and guacamole. Hopefully my musings will entertain you, as they are little more than a desperate attempt at remaining relevant.