J Edgar The Outsider

Leonardo DiCaprio is good, but not great, in J Edgar

Title:              J Edgar

Certificate:      15

Director:          Clint Eastwood

Major players:   Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer

Out of five?         3

Until yesterday, it was almost a dead cert that Leonardo DiCaprio would be nominated for Best Actor for J Edgar.  He’d kept company with Messrs Clooney and Pitt on most of the major award nominations lists – but the American Academy had other ideas and Leo was left out in the cold.

Recent years have seen biopics perform well at award ceremonies, but it’s hard to win the audience over when the central character is so unsympathetic – and that’s the central problem with Clint Eastwood’s latest offering.  It traces the life of the man who served no less than eight Presidents as Director of the FBI and who was either involved or witnessed some of the US’s biggest moments of the 20th century, from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the assassination of JFK.  His relationships with both his mother (Judi Dench) and long-term partner, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) take up a large chunk of screen time, showing just as much of the private man as the public.

As Hoover dictates his memoires, the young agent at the typewriter asks him if what he is writing is to protect an organisation’s legacy or a man’s reputation.  And for much of the film, Eastwood allows us to think it’s the latter, until pulling the rug from under our feet in a late scene between the elderly Hoover and Tolson.  We’ve seen much of the story through the central character’s eyes, after all, and they are the eyes of a man who has been out of step with his times all his life.  He is the ultimate control freak, demanding lapdog loyalty from those around him and who, when he hears that JFK has been shot, is actually listening to a tape of the President with a lover.

Eastwood also attempts to put to rest the more salacious stories about Hoover.  His relationship with Tolson, while clearly loving, appears to be remarkably chaste with little in the way of physical contact.  And, while he is shown putting on a dress, it can hardly be called cross-dressing as it belongs to his mother and he is in the throes of intense grief immediately following her death.

But, at around 140 minutes, J Edgar is simply too long and sharper editing would have given it more impact.  As it stands, it’s a leisurely paced journey through the life of a complex, power-hungry misfit.  DiCaprio gives a good performance, but it’s not a great one: at times I felt I was watching a re-run of his Howard Hughes in Scorcese’s The Aviator, but he does carry the film well and is at his best as the older Hoover, complete with make up and prosthetics.

The same can’t be said about Armie Hammer as Tolson who, while smooth and attractive as a young man, is singularly unconvincing in old age and isn’t helped by prosthetics that make him look like a wobbling jellybaby.  The best performance comes from Naomi Watts, as the third person in Hoover’s life, his long-standing secretary Helen Gandy: in her quiet way, she is even more sinister than her boss and will do anything to protect him, shredding his private files after his death to the sound of Richard Nixon on TV.

J Edgar left me wondering if Clint is losing his touch as a director.  It’s not so long ago that he seemed to have the Midas touch, making first rate films and extracting performances to match from his actors with apparently little effort – think Mystic River and Changeling.  I was hoping that J Edgar would be somewhere near their league but, to be honest, it’s not.  Despite its release during the awards season and some nominations for its star, the film is very much like Hoover himself – an outsider.

One thought on “J Edgar The Outsider

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