Reductive, strange, and at times look-away embarrassing, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar skips along the surface of the most famous and much-maligned G-Man, the first-ever FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover. As scripted by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar gives it the ol' college try. While it's probably unwise to evoke Citizen Kane, Black crafts a solve-the-person narrative that, like Kane, acknowledges the ultimate unknowability of its anti-hero—not just because no biopic can sum up a man, but because this particular man kept his secrets close.
Black and Eastwood dutifully give Hoover his due for crime-fighting advancements like a centralized system of fingerprints, while not exactly shying from his fear-mongering and skillful opportunism. (Though the film marginalizes Hoover's dirty-tricks dirt-dealing, we do get reference to the FBI's attempted blackmailing of MLK, Jr. and Tricky Dick Nixon's documented, almost admiring reaction to Hoover's 1972 death: "Je-sus Christ. That old [expletive deleted]".) The film sympathetically notes the irony of Hoover being booed by newsreel audiences that promptly cheer Jimmy Cagney's Public Enemy during the 1930s gangster-film craze (as mores change, Cagney finds himself starring in G-Men).
Despite the odd sharp observation, somehow J. Edgar comes off like the Max Fischer Players' production of Serpico, perhaps because Leonardo DiCaprio seems in over his head, playing Hoover from around age 24 to 77 in makeup that makes the 37-year-old star looks a bit like Charlie Chan. DiCaprio gives it his all, technically succeding in replicating Hoover's clipped speech but (as failed by the script) failing to give him a credible inner life.
The lasting impression of J. Edgar isn't a gripping overview of a famous American but a titteringly salacious comedy of gay manners. It's probable that Hoover's "longtime companion" Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) shared more with Hoover than meets the eye: Tolson's omnipresence as FBI Associate Director and Hoover's dining mate, vacation buddy and inheritor. Out screenwriter Black insinuates strongly but stops short of depicting a sexual relationship, settling for (spoiler alert?) a repression-busting outburst of a kiss. (Meanwhile, Naomi Watts plays Hoover's loyal secretary and awkward non-love interest Helen Gandy with reasonably convincing loyalty and awkwardness.)
In shadow and to plinky piano scoring (by the director himself), Eastwood remains true to recent form, or should I say rut? J. Edgar's clunkiness becomes tiresome, whether in Eastwood's perhaps too-efficient direction, DiCaprio's too-exertive performance, or Black's too-elegaic dialogue (Hoover intoning, "Love is the greatest force on earth, far more enduring than hatred"). The picture's Hoover notes, "I believe that I am a fast and accurate judge of character," but at 137 minutes, J. Edgar isn't either.
Warner delivers J. Edgar in a Blu-ray + DVD + Digital Copy combo pack with fine A/V specs and a value-adding bonus feature. The hi-def image isn't the most natural you're bound to see, but it does accurately present the filmmaker's intent of an image largely drained of color and extreme in contrast, with near-oppressive black level. The approach makes for striking, if not always inviting, visuals, and that distinctive imagery comes through with strong detail and texture. The lossless DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround mix is, as to be expected, state of the art, though this drama doesn't often get sonically worked up. Ambience is good, particularly in crowd scenes, and dialogue is always clearly intelligible.
In "The Most Powerful Man in the World" (18:10, HD), director Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Denis O'Hare, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, producer Brian Grazer, executive producer Erica Huggins, producer Robert Lorenz, et al discuss Hoover and the film they made about him. It's the disc's sole extra, a nice one but light on contributions from the director, who's content to let his collaborators pick up the slack.
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