By Hemanth Kissoon
“I know it’s hard to believe, but there was a time when our country feared for its safety,” J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) to Agent Smith (Ed Westwick – one of several familiar faces cropping up throughout the picture).
Hoover is referring to the Communist bombings of 1919, but the rhetoric is a poorly veiled attempt to plant the themes is in the here-and-now. After the run that started with MYSTIC RIVER, and went on to include Million Dollar Baby, Flags of Our Fathers, Letters from Iwo Jima, Changeling and Gran Torino, it looked like director Clint Eastwood was on a rarely paralleled winning streak. However, J. EDGAR is his third misfire in a row after INVICTUS and HEREAFTER. Not as calamitous as the latter Peter Morgan-scripted dud, and as stately as one has come to expect from the directing maestro; however, the film lacks depth and real insight. It feels like those biopics that WALK HARD: THE DEWEY COX STORY lampooned: craving gravitas and awards, though devoid of real intelligence and interesting story angles. I’m doubly surprised, as this is written by Dustin Lance Black, who knocked it out of the park with MILK. Both J. EDGAR and MILK share a concern with a central historical figure (and those key players in his life), and want to mix the personal, with the public persona, and the political. There are numerous reasons why a recount of Harvey Milk is an arguably easier undertaking than one of John Edgar Hoover, but the bar has been set high, and you better come close otherwise the whiff of disappointment will stick around.
Even at a 137 minute runtime, J. EDGAR felt too short and too wanting. We get intriguing glimpses into a deeply flawed man who changed law enforcement. Someone who appears so private is going to give trouble to biographers of course. Compounding matters is the narrative device, which wants us to question what we’ve witnessed, is so clumsily handled. I just shrugged my shoulders, rather than rethink the whole work. What also doesn’t sit right is that Hoover’s offensive beliefs are not looked into further. It could be put that the filmmakers were not being judgemental, but it seems like a cop-out. With INVICTUS and now this, I’m afraid Eastwood needs to re-evaluate his approach to the portrayal of government.