J. Edgar Needs Less Makeup and More Drama

Clint Eastwood's biopic should've been one of the best movies of the year. Instead, it's just a heavy-handed period piece

While most remember J. Edgar Hoover for little else than his leadership of the FBI—and perhaps his rumored homosexuality and alleged penchant for wearing dresses—he was a complex man. Obsessed with knowledge and power, he used both as tools (blackmail?) for the advancement of himself and the nascent bureau. His nearly 40-year career as FBI director spanned some of the messiest, tensest, and most trying times of our country’s history: the Lindbergh baby, gangsters, communists, civil rights, and a presidential assassination. So then with a subject matter so rife with drama, why does Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar feel so sterile?

Written by Dustin Lance Black (Oscar-winning writer of Milk), J. Edgar follows the FBI director (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) as he assembles his memoirs, recounting the beginning and rise of the bureau. Jumping from decade to decade, DiCaprio not only portrays the young, hungry G-Man but also the aged, reviled man he becomes. Along for Hoover’s assent are his professional and personal companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and his domineering mother Annie Hoover (Judi Dench).

DiCaprio, a truly talented actor, gives a good but not great performance in J. Edgar. He is hindered by scenes that feel vaguely Aviator-esque—specifically appearances before Congress—and aging makeup (more on that in a bit); his portrayal never feels authentic. During personal scenes of the younger Hoover with his mother and with Tolson, DiCaprio shines. But often, specifically during his voice-over narrations, you can’t forget the actor. It is DiCaprio speaking in a strange accent. Similarly, Hammer is promising as the young Tolson—the impossibly handsome actor was born to wear those clothes. The chemistry between he and DiCaprio crackles. But once both have been padded in makeup, the performances are lost.

Words cannot adequately describe the makeup of J. Edgar. While in some instances (older Hoover), the makeup is more successful; at other times (older Tolson), it is a disappointment. While Hammer is not quite successful at performing as a man in his 60s (his walk too rehearsed, his voice too youthful), it is his transformation that is utterly off-putting. As the elder Tolson, he is simply unrecognizable in the wax-like face. Like DiCaprio’s slightly bloated appearance, the makeup fights against rather than enhances the actors’ expressions.

But the heavy-handed, aseptic tone falls on Eastwood and Black’s shoulders. For a subject that is excessively reviled, the movie is excessively safe. Controversy is merely alluded to. Hoover’s overreach of power and bigoted beliefs are merely glanced over (except for a brief discussion of his hatred of Martin Luther King). The only moment of true fire or passion comes late in the film when Tolson and Hoover come to blows over Hoover’s dating a woman. It is a poignant moment where their frustrations with society and themselves bubble up into a violent fight. And it is only during this fight can Tolson physically express his feelings. But, for a film with a running time of two hours, 17 minutes, a few scenes are not enough. The film needs to be a bit messier: wallow a bit more in the negatives, boldly explore Hoover and Tolson’s relationship even more. Stage shots and scenes where everything feels more imperfect and less hesitant—like the infamous orgy scene in Oliver Stone’s JFK or the operatic death in Gus Van Sant’s Milk.

Since the announcement of J. Edgar, the awards buzz was deafening. How could it go wrong with writer Black, director Eastwood, actor DiCaprio, and mega-producers Ron Howard and Brian Grazer? Unfortunately, the actual film does not live up to the hype—its award ambitions now much more uncertain. (Eerily reminiscent of Eastwood’s 2006 Flags of Our Fathers.) There is a great film in here somewhere. But who knows if it was lost from page to screen or in the editing room. We can only imagine what could have been, especially in another director’s hands. And without all the makeup.

My Grade: C+