‘J. Edgar’ Review

Published 3 years ago by , Updated December 12th, 2014 at 9:44 pm,

Leonardo DiCaprio in J Edgar J. Edgar Review

J. Edgar will fall short of offering anything beyond the same speculative picture of Hoover that has dominated public opinion for nearly half a century.

J. Edgar Hoover’s journey from lowly field agent to director of the FBI has the potential to be one of the most compelling historical dramas of the last century. Hoover not only revolutionized how the U.S. investigates crime – his reputation for digging up dirt on some of the country’s most powerful politicians helped create a larger-than-life persona that has, despite plenty of rumors and controversy, endured to this day.

So, does Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, J. Edgar - with a performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as the controversial titular figure – successfully capture all sides of the brilliant, at times bizarre Hoover – or is the film, much like Hoover’s own retelling of his life, no more than a series of provocative stories that hold little actual meaning?

Unfortunately, despite a strong performance from DiCaprio and some genuinely interesting source material, Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover film has a number of problems that are difficult to overlook. At times the film bites off more than it can chew, resulting in a lot of time-jumps that make it difficult to follow the narrative throughline.

J. Edgar takes a lot of detours over its 137 minute runtime – making it hard for the movie to build any kind of momentum or tension. While the proceedings attempt to follow a fifty-year chronology (despite a tremendous amount of jump cuts to various time periods), the film puts so much space between certain elements that it’s hard to enjoy the evolution of the characters, or the overarching development of the FBI – resulting in a film with very little focus, which attempts to juggle too many ideas over the course of too many years.

Armie Hammer in J Edgar J. Edgar Review

Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson in ‘J. Edgar’

The film casts a wide net – covering everything from the FBI director’s rise through the ranks; the “The Crime of the Century” (the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby); the suffocating dynamic between Hoover (DiCaprio) and his mother (played by Judi Dench); as well as the complicated relationship with his friend (and alleged lover), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Despite spending a lot of time on the overarching influence of Hoover’s relationship with his mother, J. Edgar doesn’t cover much of the agent’s life before his admission to the bureau. As a result, the story closely follows the development of the FBI as well as well as Hoover’s telling of his own life experiences to a series of FBI field agents – who, the film asserts, ghostwrote his various published works.

While the behind-the-scenes look at the FBI is certainly interesting, in a number of cases the film seems to relish in haphazardly airing the dirty laundry of a number of characters, besides Hoover. (For example, there is allusion to Elenor Roosevelt’s alleged lesbian relationship with Lorena Hickok.) As a result, despite a lot interesting insight into Hoover’s shrewd maneuvering in the political world, it’s hard to overlook that some aspects of the film comes across, at times, as little more than an excuse to unearth secrets of American history – without making the effort to deliver a lot of profound insight.

As mentioned, most of DiCaprio’s scenes as Hoover are convincing and manage to offer a compelling portrayal of the man without having to resort to historical caricature. As usual, the actor nails the intricacies of his role – down to elocution and physical mannerisms. That said, there are a number of scenes that push the DiCaprio’s performance to a breaking point, no matter how compelling, as Eastwood’s direction and some melodramatic scriptwork undercuts potential resonance or impact. The onscreen relationship between Hoover and Tolson is especially awkward – and a number of moments that were intended to be profound fall entirely flat.

Leonardo DiCaprio Hoover Age Makeup J. Edgar Review

Leonardo DiCaprio in age makeup as J. Edgar Hoover

Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame anyone but Eastwood for the film’s shortcomings – as the supporting cast also offers a number of compelling performances. While the complicated relationship between Hoover and Tolson doesn’t have the intended impact, Armie Hammer presents a solid performance – and is responsible for bringing a bit of warmth to offset J. Edgar’s obsessive and harsh personality. Similarly, Naomi Watts manages to find a balance between the day-to-day strain of Hoover’s career secretary, Helen Gandy, as well as a fervent loyalty that enabled her to work with Edgar for nearly fifty years. Unsurprisingly, Judi Dench is also a standout – providing a nuanced performance which illustrates the high-pressure home life that crippled Hoover emotionally, and made it difficult for him to focus on anything but his work.

There are also a number of minor technical problems that further undermine the strength of the film – including plastic-looking aging make-up (specially with regard to Tolson), as well as depictions of iconic politicians, which are distracting and poorly realized. These “minor” details wouldn’t be such a problem if the film didn’t try so hard to “feel” authentic – exemplified by Eastwood’s choice to shoot the entire project with a dark and grainy film palette.

While J. Edgar manages to provide an intriguing look at one of the country’s most fascinating icons, a peek into the evolution of the FBI, and delivers a number of standout performances, Eastwood ultimately fails to provide a cohesive narrative or compelling insight into his subject. Despite the film’s problems, some moviegoers will no doubt enjoy watching familiar events play out onscreen; for others, however, J. Edgar will fall short of offering anything beyond the same speculative picture of Hoover that has dominated public opinion for nearly half a century.

If you’re still on the fence about J. Edgar, check out the trailer below:


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Follow me on Twitter @benkendrick - and let us know what you thought of the film below:

J. Edgar is now in theaters.

Our Rating:

3 out of 5

TAGS: Hoover, J Edgar
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  1. I think that Eastwood’s films (along with mind) are starting get worse and worse. Not to take away from what he has accomplished- the man is a legend amongst actors and directors- but just saying that he is noticeably losing his touch these past few years. I mean the guy is 81, should he even be working at this point? Hang up the towel Eastwood and call it a wrap it has been a good run.

    As for DiCapprio, I think it is probably a goal of his to work with every great director of our time but, which he pretty much has done, but I think its time he gets the best Oscar award. It is LOOOOOONG overdue. This guy is arguably one of the top 3 best actors out there right now and he has consistently delivered great performances playing a variety of different characters and conveying a wide range of emotions. I know him and the academy have there differences (since titanic which he was what a teenager or in his early 20′s?) but drop it and give him the award already

    • Spot on! Well Said

      • Has the Academy ever given out a Best Actor/Actress award for a performance in a movie that was not an “oscar-film”? (film where the actor/actress is on screen almost all the time, and portrays several different emotions)

        There are plenty of movies where I thought, the actor should get an award for this. Even though they had very little time on screen. It should be more about quality than quantity.

    • Sounds like you have an inclination toward age discrimination, my friend. Despite what you make think of his recent films, they are still far better than countless other ones out there. Should those directors be working, regardless of their age?

  2. I was expecting more from this, seeing the talent involved.

  3. I like DiCaprio, but couldn’t see him in this role. I feel he was miscast.

    • You didn’t see the movie, so how can you judge? I saw it and he was fantastic.

  4. If Di Caprio finaly gets an Oscar out of this it will be worth it , The most consistently good actor of the last 10 years ( Aviator , The Departed ,Blood Diamond , Shutter island , Inception ) He deserves it !

    • Yeah, but he should get it because of a great performance in one film (which he should have gotten), and not because of his amazing work over the years. Cause that would reduce the Oscar to “great career recognition, instead of great performance”.

  5. anything with Leonardo in it should have at least 4 stars

    • Yah, ‘Critters 3′ was definitely a 4/5 ;)

      • SCHOOLED

  6. I saw an early screening of this movie a couple of days ago. I agree with the sort-of jerkiness at the beginning with all the time jumping and the some times odd makeup. However, I thought the overall story (particularly the story between Hoover and Tolson) was very compelling.

    All that being said, I anticipate that many who this movie may not like it. It wasn’t at all what I was expecting, yet I left the theater loving the movie. I expect most will feel the same way as far as it not being what they expected, but I doubt most people will love it as much as I did.

  7. whelp, that did it! This is a DVD watch for me…

    • Are you joking? Do you always base your interest in a movie on what a reviewer(s) might say? What do you do when there is disagreement among them, as there almost always is?

      • Hey Jeff,

        Believe it or not, some people actually read reviews to help them decide whether or not to see a movie – as opposed to seeking out reviews one disagrees with just so they can voice their disagreement with reviewers after they’ve seen a film.


        • Like

        • Hey Vic,

          I haven’t seen the movie, so I cannot agree or disagree with this review. Roger Ebert gave it a good review, but I can neither agree or disagree with that one as well. If/when I see the movie, either in the theater or on DVD, I’ll make up my own mind about it. I criticized “Al” due his apparent dismissal of it based on this one review. You have criticized me, apparently because you thought I already saw the movie and liked it. I have now criticized you, for your misunderstanding. And thus, the world turns…

  8. Despite a lot of negative reviews, its still a must see.

  9. Bob Hoskins is the ONLY Hoover

    Jesus I loved Nixon. Hoskins was brilliant and the creepy fruit eating scene was gold

    • yup!! that’s right,dude. Bob hoskins was awesome!! luv it!

  10. Sorry to stray off topic,but there’s something that I’ve been wondering for a long time now.How in the hell did they not cast Armie Hammer as Captain America?

    I liked Chris Evans as Steve Rogers,but I just didn’t find him very convincing as Cap.I think Hammer would have been the absolute perfect choice for the role and better than Every one else that anyone could come up with.

    Now back on topic.

    I’ve never been an Eastwood fan,acting or directing.Aside from Grand Turino,I don’t really like his movies,or at least the ones I’ve seen.I’ll probably rent this on VUDU when it comes out,but there’s no way I’m paying movie theater money for it.

    • Consider him lucky. Marvel ruins movies. They try to manipulate their actors. ( See Rourke, Norton)

  11. this movie is gonna be one of those movies that has quotes people who havent even seen it use. like ten years from now people are gonna say “stay strong edgar.”

  12. Just saw it this morning. I gotta tell ya I was surprised to see hgow good it actually was. The changing of different times didnt bother me. Now I am not a big leo fan but he was truley fantastic in this role. I went to see this for the historical aspects of it but I found myself being genuinly entertained. I really enjoyed it.

  13. The review was very accurate in my opinion, and I thought it was good and a 3 star out of five as well!

  14. The time-looping did become a bit annoying after a while, but I think the movie was pretty good; I’d say 3.5/5. I thought DiCaprio did a solid job as J. Edgar, and I wouldn’t be surprised if he got a nomination. The film itself won’t get any accolades from The Academy but I can see Leo or Dench getting mentions.

  15. I absolutely loved this film. Yes, there was a lot of time jumping but each time there was, it was new important pieces of Hoover’s life and cases. I enjoyed it even more in the end when Tolson finally got Hoover to come to terms with his over exaggeration of the arrests he actually made. If Eastwood hadn’t done any of that time jumping you wouldn’t really understand the point, or what was really in Hoover’s mind when he took all of that publicity. I also really thought that Armie Hammer gave a 5 star performance along with Leonardo DiCaprio as they finally came together in the end admitting the truth to one another and not listening to society anymore. Even though it wasn’t ” romantic” that is fine, the point was still made. Eastwood deserves much praise for this amazing portrayal.

    • I’m really disappointed with Eastwood’s pointless, and historical fiction of Hoover’s “secret life”. My father worked for Mr. Hoover for 28 years in positions from Agent to Assistant Special in Charge to Inspector to Special Agent in Charge to Assistant Director of the FBI in nine cities and twice in the D.C. He had any number of phone conversations and face to face meetings with the man. He was directly involved in countless bank robbery, kidnappings, sky-jackings and federal investigations with Hoover having the direct and final word. This film, in my dad’s words “is a bunch of crap”, excepting the depiction of his relationship with the Kennedys and Nixon who, together, along with the Left are arguably responsible for the defaming homosexuality accusations which have been found by historians to be without merit. Unfortunately, Mr. Eastwood has reduced himself by fabricating the private life of a man, long dead and defenseless, with debunked lies and innuendo. It smacks of “sellin’ tickets”. Too bad since Eastwood hardly needs the money. “J Edgar” will place Eastwood in the ranks of Michael Moore, Oliver Stone and so many of the Hollywood liar left.

      • Thanks for your contribution Bob and if its true as you have written it then its great to hear from someone with info close to the subject being commented on. I am curious about one thing though, Did Hoover have as many files on people as had been reported?

  16. I LOVE this movie. When I saw it in theaters, I sat through the whole thing. My favorite scene is the romantic scenes between John/Clyde, in fact during the kiss I had to contain my squee’s and I had this big grin on me. I also liked the acting, writing, and everything else as well. So long story short, best political romance EVER!!!!!