The cartoon kid-film Rango stars Johnny Depp voice acting for a diminutive green lizard who has hair-raising adventures in the Mojave desert. At some point, Rango crosses paths with the mythic Spirit of the West. The Spirit looks just like Clint Eastwood, wearing a poncho, chewing a cheroot, and driving a golf cart—the back of which is cluttered with Oscar-looking trophies.
Eastwood’s latest film, J. Edgar, looks like the Spirit of the West is trying for another Oscar for the back of his golf cart. It may be a long shot.
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, this film is the story (but not biopic) of the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, founding father of the FBI.
We meet Hoover’s right-hand man and lifelong friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his loyal-to-the-death secretary (Naomi Watts), and his vicariously living, Lady Macbeth-like mother (Judi Dench).
The main chunk of storytelling has to do with Hoover’s handling of the famous Lindbergh kidnapping case. This is used to show how Hoover was able to influence the creation of the “Lindbergh Law,” which designates kidnapping as a federal offense, thereby, among other things, giving power to FBI agents in terms of their ability to supersede local law enforcement, to make arrests, and bear arms.
It further shows Hoover’s talent and vast influence on the entire umbrella of law enforcement procedures, including the development of forensics, use of expert witnesses, the centralization of a fingerprinting database, and so on.
We also see the two extremes between which Hoover was pulled. There’s the public servant on the moral high ground, tirelessly working to streamline the efficacy of the Bureau and burnish its FBI “G-man” profile in the eyes of the public. On the other side is the megalomaniac, whose power-hungry, manipulative use of thinly veiled blackmail threats against various presidents, as well as Martin Luther King Jr., stained his record.
Because there’s no easily defined plotline, with bits and pieces of Hoover’s character being revealed by the constant cutting back and forth from the past to the future, too much voice-over is needed to pull it all together.
One of the problems with this is Hoover’s rather extreme accent, which defies definition. DiCaprio is pretty good at accents, and when he’s visible on-screen, it works. As pure voice-over, however, it attracts attention to itself and distracts the viewer.
For the character-acting challenge of spanning youth to decrepitude, DiCaprio does a fine job of shape shifting. Hair and makeup are outstanding. DiCaprio-as-Hoover’s impassioned speeches before Congress are the high points of the film.
Infused with somber shadows and a mostly piano musical score composed by Eastwood himself, the overall feeling of J. Edgar is much like the film’s running-gag about men gaining weight in the early part of the past century. People said, “It’s OK—it’s ‘solid weight.'”
The “solid weight” of the film lies in the fact that Hoover, at least as presented here, was not a particularly interesting or likeable individual. Along with the lack of tension due to plots jumping around and not gaining much traction, the “solid weight” feels more like what “solid weight” really is, namely fat, and fat feels a lot like boredom.
There’s a good line at the end, when Hoover says, “When morals decline and good men do nothing—evil flourishes.” While true, it’s also of interest to note that as tight as the FBI can now draw the net to catch criminals (thanks to Hoover), the more the laws proliferate, so also do the criminals.
Leonardo DiCaprio will definitely be getting a nomination; it’s just the kind of role Oscar likes. The smart money says that if anything in J. Edgar wins a statuette, it’ll be the hair and makeup department. If so, The Spirit of the West will stack yet another golden trophy in the back of his golf cart, and putt off into the sunset.
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench
3 stars out of 5