Spanning seven decades, J. Edgar is epic in scale though imprecise in result. With Leonardo DiCaprio as the title character, there’s certainly a sense of gravitas to the proceedings. But what curiously holds the feature back is not Eastwood’s reserved direction or DiCaprio’s bombastic acting, but rather, it is Dustin Lance Black’s curiously flat screenplay. Whereas Milk had utilized a fairly simplistic narrative structure, there was at least a sense of cohesion between scenes, wherein the plot progressed in an incredibly effective manner. But with J. Edgar, the time-spanning nature of Black’s screenplay seems to arbitrarily move between moments in time without much thought or meaning.
As a biopic, Eastwood treats the material and character with reverence, as he seems to be reserving judgment. This manner of approaching a figure like J. Edgar Hoover is appreciated, particularly given that it’s the sort of individual whose significance was not directly felt by my generation. The stories of Hoover’s past have seeped into popular culture, and to some extent, both Black and Eastwood delve into some of them. Said stories include his precarious (or perhaps nonexistent) sex life, his oedipal relationship with his mother, and his close relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Eastwood relies on the same sort of color-corrected visual approach has he utilized in his 2008 effort, Changeling. Whereas Changeling moved between locales to make greater use of this visual approach, J. Edgar tends to be shot largely in closed-quartered venues, which only makes for a stagnant and visually muddled looking picture. While there tends to be slightly different hues as the film makes it leaps in time, it is simply not significant enough to illuminate the visuals.
Amidst the poor visuals and oddly structured narrative, there happens to be a fairly strong performance from Leonardo DiCaprio. I’ve never been quite taken by the actor, as he seems to be the sort of actor who so persistently acts that it removes you from the picture. But he does an admirable job in J. Edgar, particularly given that this is one of the few times that his young demeanor does not hinder his ability to play an older character. That’s partly attributed to the impressive make-up work of the film. He’s buried under a mask that doesn’t prohibit his facial movements a bit. Though that works better for DiCaprio than others, as Armie Hammer ages more like a zombie than an actual human being. Had it not been for DiCaprio, the film would’ve moved much like a zombie too.