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J Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) looks back over his life as the founder/boss of the FBI. Is he a reliable narrator? Do we care? All will become clear. As clear as mud.
Now here's a film that's fallen utterly between two stools. On the one hand it wants to be a big Oscar-y tale of the ages about the head of the FBI, one of the most powerful men in America, looking back over his life and times. And on the other hand it's a much smaller, edgier film about a closeted, life-long if possibly unconsummated love affair that could never be made public. (It is also, thanks to some bizarre make-up department choices for the sections where younger actors play senior citizens, an occasionally nightmarish glimpse into what the FBI would have looked like if it was ruled by the squishy, melting extra terrestrials in Brian Yuzna's Society, captured mid-shunting orgy.)
Director Clint Eastwood uses cinematography like a rusty shotgun in a doomed attempt to marry these two competing films - for the most part, the big Oscar biopic and the heartfelt relationship between J Edgar and his wingman Clyde Tolson are shot in the same Stygian haze, as if by imposing a unifying gloom on the project we won't notice how disjointed the whole thing is. It's an understandable decision - I once tried the same trick at school in woodwork class when I'd made a cack-handed model train: slather it in loads of really dark varnish and hope nobody notices the dodgy joins. Unfortunately, when you've got a big project like this on your hands, people notice.
It's a shame J Edgar doesn't really work, because there are some interesting ideas here and he's a great subject for a film - he's the nearest America has ever come to an unelected dictator. The film doesn't seem to get too far into this territory: it's not on his side, but nor does it want to really condemn him, preferring the 'yes, he did questionable stuff politically, but hey, he's only human' school of thought.
To end on a positive note, Armie Hammer is enjoyable as Clyde Tolson, at least until his untimely burial alive beneath the tragic prosthetic landslide that claimed the lives of both his and DiCaprio's performances. There is less information in the public domain about the real Clyde Tolson than there is about Hoover, and perhaps that helps - Hammer creates a character that's his own, in contrast to DiCaprio who seems uncertain how much license he ought to take, sometimes ploughing into full-on recreation, sometimes doing his own thing.
A failure, but an interesting failure when you step back and contemplate the project as a whole. Not really anybody's idea of a good time at the cinema that, though, is it? File under 'missed opportunity'.
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