J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) out on the town with his mother
(Judi Dench) and friend, Clyde (Armie Hammer), in J. Edgar.
Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar reminded me of all the reasons I hate biopics. This is a totally uninspired film—a paint-by-numbers history lesson that, yes, features good performances but takes no chances. A film needs to be extraordinarily well-made to overcome the trappings of such a familiar narrative trajectory, and this one just isn't.
J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is synonymous with the FBI. He served as its director from its inception in 1935 until his death in 1972. Throughout that time, he worked tirelessly to rid the country of gangsters and communists, often shredding the book on civil liberties to do so. Perhaps his biggest moment was when he headed up the investigation of the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son. Hoover's revolutionary idea that science could and should solve crimes was put to the test here. And through its repeated successes, he accumulated more and more power. Simultaneously, however, his personal life was a mess. His mother (Judi Dench) exerted far too much control over him, and he spent years and years suppressing feelings for his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
The film's biggest problem is the way it's organized. It's Biopic 101—let the main character recount his greatest hits, flashing back and forth between the present and past. The story doesn't need this, nor is it very creative. Dustin Lance Black wrote a great screenplay for Milk back in 2008, but his work here really comes up short, and Eastwood's lifeless direction isn't doing him any favors.
Leonardo DiCaprio does exactly what you'd expect from an actor of his quality playing a character as juicy as Hoover. His work is strong. Hoover has many layers, and DiCaprio knows when to both let loose and hold back. He's best when he's playing off others. Neither Judi Dench or Naomi Watts (as Hoover's secretary) have much to do, but Armie Hammer is terrific as Hoover's right-hand man. Their explosive scene together near the end is the film's best.
I can't go any further without calling attention to the laughable makeup on all the characters. Hammer, in particular, looks awful—AWFUL! It's a shame because film has real aesthetic appeal, but the makeup totally takes you out of the moment. Someone should've called up the folks on La Vie en Rose for some advice.
It's hard to say if the film will attract any Oscar consideration. Both DiCaprio and Hammer have been acknowledged by several precursor groups. I think nominations could be in the cards for one or both, but it's hard to say because the film was (deservedly) received quite poorly.
Ultimately, however, this will one likely fade into history as another post-Million Dollar Baby misfire. He's on a cold streak, but I still have faith he can come back. My advice: Go on a vacation and take a little time off. You've earned it, and you probably need it.