Clint Eastwood’s tragically flawed, well-intentioned biopic J. Edgar is by all measure a thunderous mishap, scattered performances and epic storytelling, technical and tattered myth-making theatrics by a masterful filmmaker. Audiences and reviews are often at odds with one another, every other write-up a give and take, praise and condemnation dished out in heaping details according to the aggregators. The film seems at best half mast, middle of the road, whatever metaphor you’d like but when it comes down to it, after the box office receipts are tallied up it is, worst of all, under appreciated. Nevertheless, it is a refreshing departure from the usual brooding of Eastwood’s wounded men films, stories about broken souls like Jimmy Marcum (Sean Penn) who do not change so much as they reflect the change that comes from the collateral damage of their lives (Mystic River). It’s as though we find these characters at the end of a marathon race, out of breath and battered limbs, they know the world has caught up with them like Robert ‘Butch’ Haynes (Kevin Costner) who find that change is exactly what they thought it would be like (A Perfect World) but it’s often permanent beginnings and necessary endings. Eastwood’s oeuvre suggests wounded confrontation leads to the greatest journeys of the heart and soul but in this film, for Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) he chooses instead to slow down for details, portray a character from his humblest pursuit of justice and civic duty to one of the most formidable public figures ever to hold and wield such a power outside the White House. J. Edgar succeeds after all, proving Eastwood’s ability to survive even if the memory of this movie does not.
In films about real people and actual events, factual accounts of what happened that can be proved and all the things that cannot, there’s a delicate balance between art and homage, creative license and necessary fabrications. In a film about secrets and the king of secrets, the earliest formulations of what would become the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) one might not think it odd at all to find such a dark and damaged telling. A lot of reviews make mention of the purposeful cinematography pushing heavy contrasts forcing Hoover and others into half-light, gloomy interiors where misdeeds and evil doings are not only practiced but honed to perfection. The fact that Eastwood and his cinematographer of choice Tom Stern go for mood lighting seems only fitting for a film about America’s most notorious introvert of power and prestige, though in all honesty they might have taken it a bit too literally at times. Stern has collaborated with Eastwood on many films and has shot all of his films since 2002. Given the historical context of the story, charting some 50 odd years or so, we should expect to get a little dirty in the process, stumble over heavy rooms of silence and impending doom, go over minutiae because it is there in those fine damaged places that history was made and souls were forged in the fire. J. Edgar is after all, a film about flawed perfection and hopeful idealism even in the heart of so much corruption.
J. Edgar the film seems most at odds with J. Edgar the man, Eastwood’s investment in character missing important revelations, turning to history for answers to a life we never fully get to know over the course of the film. It’s not for lack of details that we’re distanced but in the choices made by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) and how they are carried out by DiCaprio. The young actor seems impressed with Hoover’s locked box of forbidden desires and taboo relationships but his iron mask façade is impervious to the viewer; we simply cannot get to the man’s inner worlds for so much political genuflecting and government sacrosanct hypocrisy. In his forlorn expressions and long take stares, in the little pauses of doubt and certain doom burning scene to scene, it’s like we’re looking through a frosted glass at the nearly imperceptible waiting for something to register that never fully materializes and for fans of the eclectic everyman actor they might find something there whereas the rest of us don’t have the luxury of such devices. As a result Hoover the man is locked inside DiCaprio the actor and Eastwood can’t get through the waxen difference between subtlety and somnolence, revealing what might make for an interesting article: The aging Eastwood attempting to get younger DiCaprio to portray an old man who in truth is 5 years older than Hoover when he died.
Eastwood must take away from J. Edgar the burden of the film’s failure, realizing along with Warner Bros. the richly nuanced, fatally flawed life and times of Hoover didn’t register with audiences. It was not for lack of an impressive cast of known and notables, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas and Judi Dench, armed with a sizable budget and studio backing with his regular crew of merry filmmakers. Perhaps it was the limited release in November, hardly the best time of year for a weighty biopic depicting an aged and worn out leading man in a film lost to history books and mysteriousness. Other films pushed it to the side with extravagance (Immortals) and ridiculous antics (Jack and Jill), lost to art film dalliance (Melancholia) and sentimental awards bait (The Descendants). In an era when escapist cinema wins the eager to forget, in the now of so much political corruption and unprecedented atrocities, there might not ever be a good time for films like this or maybe we need them more than we’d like to admit. J. Edgar will appeal to the stalwart traditionalists, cinephiles and aficionados of Eastwood and DiCaprio, it will also distance many and prove to the few the magic of movies to take us out of the places we carve for ourselves in everyday struggles to realize our mistakes and own them so that we might not relive them if at all.
To Blu-ray or not To Blu-ray:
There are many places where you can find all the information you’ll need, or ever want to know about the technical aspects of the transfer, the contrast ratios and picture clarity color levels, crushed blacks and inky washes of primary and secondary patterns. The same can be said for the audio, DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 surround gives the home theater a spacial experience, a lush atmosphere limited only by your equipment and ear for specificity. Many a reviews go into such matters with the delicacy of a bull stampede, knowing not what they say but for to grab indiscriminately from other sites and sources. I’ll leave such things alone except to say the movie looks and sounds as it should for an often subdued, meticulous story with aging characters sometimes prone to silence, overwhelmed by the cacophonous weight of thoughts and indecision. The bonus material comes by way of “The Most Powerful Man in the World”, a featurette with cast and crew gathered for an overview of the film, characters and history. For those looking for a detailed accounting will be disappointed, though there is plenty of material online and elsewhere for the taking. It’s hard to know where to put this film in terms of Blu-ray necessity versus DVD practicality. Like all Blu-ray films, and most Warner Bros. releases, J. Edgar is a beautifully realized Blu-ray for you to decide at the end.
Warner Home Video, a division of Warner Bros. Home Entertainment Inc., invited me to join their exclusive Blu-ray Elite Movie Review Program and they sent me a complimentary copy of this movie for the purpose of review with special attention on the “Blu-ray Experience”. I received this video for free, but that does not sway this review or the reviews of other films that will follow.