'J. Edgar' investigates history, doesn't find adequate storytelling

By Matt Rooney

Clint Eastwood has made interesting movies about interesting topics: the negative effects of violence, friendships tested by tragedy, redemption and monkeys.

Film plays like a history textbook

Now he's tackling American history in "J. Edgar" starring Leonardo DiCaprio. It accounts the life of former FBI head J. Edgar Hoover and all the things he did to protect the country he loved.

What I've enjoyed about Eastwood's other pictures is he's able to bring out both sweetness and genuine grit in the stories. So that should make him perfect to direct the story of an American legend with apparently loads of skeletons in the closet, right? After seeing "J. Edgar" I can say: sort of.

"J. Edgar" is told through narrative as he accounts his life to a biographer while writing the "Untitled FBI Story." You clearly see the film's writer, Dustin Lance Black ("Milk"), did his research. Everything seems accurate, including his relationship with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). But in this movie, it's not so much what's being told as how it's told.

The movie jumps around decades in Hoover's life as you learn of his deeds. But that's just it. You're watching only things as he goes about them.

Little incentive or focus on what that act meant is explained other than "to protect our country." This becomes disengaging after a while, and little changes.

And that's really the movie. You watch DiCaprio (in a bravo performance) as he goes about trying to catch thugs and hunt down the Lindbergh baby. It's told in a very to-the-facts, history book kind of way. This gives you a great look into the man everyone knew him as. Not enough, though, is shown of him as no one knew him. What secrets did he hold? How far did his relationship with Tolson (also portrayed beautifully by Hammer) actually go? Not enough questions are answered, just presented.

Strong finish not enough to save bureau chief

The last 20 minutes or so is probably the film's strongest. You see a different side to Edgar when his mother dies. His relationship with Tolson is tested, albeit briefly, and his feelings toward the country in his old age are revealed. But in a 147-minute run time, 20 minutes is too little, too late.

But is all of this bad? I'll go back to my original statement of "sort of." Eastwood and Black have a clear respect for the man and don't wish to tarnish his reputation but still want the public to know who he was. This results in so-so storytelling with a few sparks.

But I think that can be seen as admirable. Sure, a more thriller-esque would have been better, but Eastwood goes for the more direct surface route, but it shows clear respect for a great man.

Being said, there are some technical disputes I have from making this review a toss in the air. For starters, there are moments when the film's lighting is way too dark. I don't know if it were an attempt to get the feel of shady dealing or just a miscalculation. Either way it's too much at times.

And at others it feels as if the color is horribly saturated to the point where it's almost nonexistent. As for the makeup, it's heavy, but not horrible on DiCaprio and Naomi Watts, who plays Edgar's secretary and dear friend, portrayed in a very come-and-go fashion.

But on Hammer, it looks like something out of a "Jackass" sketch. It is obvious in its fakeness and looks uncomfortable on him as he can hardly move his face. Whoever's job it was to make Hammer look inhuman, I sentence thee to Hell.

Plus, not once did I see a date or location on the screen. I had no idea what decade or state anyone was ever in at any time, which was confusing and frustrating, to say the least.

In a clam shell, "J. Edgar" is a respectfully told story of an American legend. But its methods of telling the story are less than admirable and would have benefitted from a different approach. This movie could have been juicy and revealed facts nobody ever knew. But like the destruction of Edgar's files at the end of the film, all the good stuff was cut.

2 .5 stars (or you get just as much from a history book, but, hey, it has Leo!)


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