J. Edgar is an intentionally misguided film. Critics have complained about the non-linear storytelling, the broad direction, and the lack of stance taken on the subject at hand. I believe Eastwood is showing real dedication and trust in his material by keeping from pushing the film in his own way. In preventing "J. Edgar" from turning into "C. Eastwood", the layers of emotion and conflict unfold gracefully. The drama isn't forced. The characters, fully realized by a talented cast, span decades with seamless poignancy.
This is a different Clint Eastwood film than what we're used to. His films up to this point have always been layered, but they built to a rousing emotional climax. The pieces would be constructed to resonate against what he, behind the camera, was eying. Here, he takes all of the pieces and lays them out as if he's storyboarding a final product. But he leaves it that way. Instead of manipulating the pieces into what some would argue could be a better film, he just steps back.
You won't see many directors do that, and for good reason. Intentionally displaying a lack of position on a subject isn't something one would want on a résumé. Eastwood doesn't treat this as "his" project. This is a character study that even he as the director is unfolding as the film progresses. This decision isn't entirely successful, mind you. There are developments handled roughly. Emotions and actions are built seemingly out of thin air, leaving that element hanging. Important aspects of Hoover's character like his sexuality and his relationship with his mother are handled beautifully on their own, but aren't really worked into the core of the film well enough.
A picture can be classified as a sum of its parts. On that basis, the film is excellent. J. Edgar isn't as sharp around the edges as one would hope, especially with such a cutting title character at the helm. But there is mastery in the storytelling. By jumping all around his life, the movie keeps itself from becoming a black-and-white, by-the-numbers biopic. There are a couple of times where the shifts in the timeline are superfluous as the film almost gets ahead of itself. But there is a real fluency amid the chaos that unfolds beautifully.
Leonardo DiCaprio seems too fit to play the part. He ran the risk of either overdoing his performance or not distinguishing it enough from his other roles. But his work here is mesmerizing. He's not allowed much physical work. Hoover was nicknamed "Speed" for the mass of words he could spew out in seconds. Therefore, DiCaprio is limited to relaying most every emotion and every nuance in his dialogue. Whether it's in the elision of certain letters in his speech or in the tremors and stutters in his voice, we get a sense of "who" he is playing, not "what" he is portraying.
His supporting cast is equally vigorous. The two main women highlight different sides of J. Edgar's character. Judi Dench plays Hoover's mother. She manages to easily convey a warm, soothing side that is just as quickly bit through with a fiery passion. Hoover is extremely loving towards his mother, but also achingly vulnerable. Naomi Watts stars as Helen Gandy, one of the few women that Hoover takes a liking to as a worker in his bureau. She is soon solely entrusted to his private files. It's fascinating to see how Edgar relies on her like no one else. Watts in underused in the film, however, tending to just follow the characters around. But she's convincing as her character battles between her loyalty to Hoover and her disapproval of some of his actions.
One performance in particular really stood out, though. Armie Hammer is Clyde Tolsen, the key character in Hoover's life. "I need you," he says to Tolsen. One of the only stable things in Hoover's life, Tolsen is able to reach out to him. Hammer's screen presence is spirited and resounding. DiCaprio really doesn't have a showy, Oscar role. Instead, this supporting newcomer gets the "baitier" part. But nothing in his character is forced or insincere. There is something genuine about the performance.
J. Edgar isn't quite as convincing visually. Outcries were heard across the Tomatometer against the makeup in the film. I was impressed for the most part, but Tolsen's aging is laughably bad. His plastic-y corpse look late in the film was distracting from the performance underneath. On another note, the lighting was nearly suffocating. There is always harsh light, making even the most tender of onscreen moments seem distant and off-putting.
Past the inconsistent makeup, the brilliant acting, the brash lighting, and every other detail in this film, there is a real keen sense of completion. The movie feels whole. It starts with the bookends of Hoover's life and works to peel away a central character. This is accomplished filmmaking. Now, is this just a compilation of pieces that could be worked into a possibly greater piece of manipulated filmmaking? Sure. But all the more impressive is how Eastwood's fingerprints can cover this film without smearing that which he is studying.
**NOTE: I haven't the slightest clue why this film was rated R. There are three vulgar words used (only one of which was an F-bomb). I could present a slew of profanity-laced comedies that were rated PG-13.**