(Published as 'Let Down by Stilted Acting' in The Sunday Guardian, dated 22 January, 2012, retrieved from http://www.sunday-guardian.com/masala-art/let-down-by-stilted-acting)
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts
Director: Clint Eastwood
Rating: 3 stars
The opening scene of J Edgar tell us four things, through a mask, a speech, a retort and a clipping – this is a film about a man who will not brook opinions contrary to his own, about an institution that circumvented law to eliminate outlaws, about how the man and his brainchild appear to the world, and about how power pulverises scruples.
Soon, we see it follows the same flashback template as Mervyn LeRoy’s 1959 film, The FBI Story – an old man tells stories of how the FBI tracked down criminals whom the media romanticised.
But this is not just the story of the longest serving Director of the FBI, J Edgar Hoover; it’s the story of the man, his insecurities and his ideals, his sexuality and his PR machinery. And Clint Eastwood follows Martin Scorcese’s lead in casting Leonardo DiCaprio as the eponymous character of a period biopic about a troubled, successful man with an OCD. And DiCaprio plays J Edgar Hoover so much like Howard Hughes that it appears all men who’re wary of germs talk fast.
Like most Hollywood biopics, the emphasis here is on the ‘human’ aspect. So, while Clint Eastwood brings several Wikipedia pages to life – the Counter Intelligence Program (COINTELPRO), the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son, G-Men, Mrs. Roosevelt’s speculated lesbian affair, the JFK assassination, the clash with Martin Luther King – he does make room for the love-friendship dynamic and mommy issues. Judi Dench is a formidable presence as the conscience-keeper, guilt-tripper, and sexual-orientation-alterer of her son Edgar. Our main man is further weakened by a speech disorder that calls for a seething-before-a-mirror scene à la Colin Firth.
J Edgar is absorbing at times, and makes for a rather interesting history lesson and social commentary – the perfunctory nature of crime scene investigations in the 1920s, and the bureaucratic bottlenecks that allowed terror a free rein find uncomfortable echoes across the world today.
But the problem with a period film that revels in its costumes, sets, and colours, about a group of men that bask in their cockiness, intelligence and couture, rendered through a narrative that straddles crime, power play and legislation, is that the bombast can overwhelm the story. And it’s a pity when the profusion of quotable quotes camouflages as witty a quip as, “It’s easy to be an expert if you’re the only person in the world with the interest”; or, when clichéd interactions along the lines of kids-say-the-darndest-things undermine quirky touches in the screenplay.
Leonardo DiCaprio has proved, when given the opportunity, that his face is far more expressive than his tone, and the film may have been a far more nuanced if it were less verbose. By cramming its dialogue with details that one could easily find on Wikipedia if interested, J Edgar falls into a trap – it overdramatises the silent sequences, focusing on a signature here and an ironic smile there.
The movement of the film relies rather too much on devices such as the very deliberate repetition of lines by different people in similar contexts, and the laying down of conditions that will either be flouted (with tragic consequences for the characters), or milked (with tragic consequences for the viewers).
The temporal indicators struck me as being rather overdone too. Does a film set fifty years ago demand staccato speech, purposeful strides and shoulder jerks? We could have done without the exaggerated enunciation, robotic expressions, pedantic speeches, and shoddy makeup.
What makes me wish Eastwood has stuck to his less-is-more mantra is that the subtler moments in the film worked so beautifully. The relationship between Hoover and his longtime personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) touches a chord the one between Hoover and his companion-protégé Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) doesn’t. The minor roles, notably those of Albert Osborne (Denis O’ Hare) and Robert Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), are portrayed convincingly. The pathos of one scene, which examines the effect the death of a loved one may have on us and the crazy things we do to pretend s/he is still with us, is heartrending.
However, to the film’s detriment, it talks too much. And while Eastwood maintains that this is no eulogy to Hoover, the natural tendency of a filmmaker – and a viewer – is to empathise with the subject to such a degree that his failings come through as forgivable, rather than destructive.