Dear J. Edgar,
There was so much potential in you, and you couldn’t waste it fast enough.
We live at a time when national security is one of the chief concerns on people’s minds, where civil unrest is a rising wave threatening to wash over every aspect of our daily lives. This is an environment where a film about the man who created the FBI, who spent his life battling domestic threats to the United States, could not be more timely. Yet somehow you managed to sap yourself of all of that importance and timeliness, while at the same time also failing to bother with dramatic tension, character development, or even narrative focus.
Personally, it feels as though you not only never wanted to succeed, but that you made no effort to try to succeed, as either an informative, in depth biopic or as a dramatization of the creation of an organization or a moment in time.
The greatest of your many weaknesses is your refusal to pick a style/theme and stick with it. You begin almost in the same manner as Walk the Line, with an aged and experienced professional beginning to look back over their entire life on the eve of a very important final stage in their journey. However, whereas that film retained a single fluid strand of narrative that worked its way from the beginning back to that pivotal moment, you opt for a far more confusing and unnecessary story choice. You begin with J. Edgar Hoover as an old man, the head of the FBI, and on the verge of attempting to destroy Martin Luther King Jr.’s civil rights movement. To mitigate the damage done to his own reputation, Hoover begins dictating the story of his and, by proxy, the FBI’s history to a series of different agents who are taking notes which will act as a biography of sorts. These sessions lead to flashbacks, during which time Hoover’s voice narrates everything we are about to see.
To call this style of storytelling cliche is to do a disservice to the sometimes narratively important concept of the cliche. No, this is much worse. This is lazy, the act of a storyteller who has no idea how to structure their story in a way that is compelling. Hoover’s voice has to fill in the historical gaps left by the visual storytelling. He breezes through the history of the bolshevik conflict he seems to have invested so much in, leaving the audience wishing that those interesting first few moments could have been lingered on. There are terrorist acts, coordinated federal busts, detective work, and sweeping moments of historical importance that most movies shy away from. And yet this movie, uniquely suited to explore these ideas and conflicts, decides to gloss over them as well. A whole, interesting movie could have been made from these scenes, but instead we’re stuck with this film.
In general there is a tone-deafness to your proceedings. For an exploration of a man who wanted to revolutionize the way crime is solved, you devote very little to the actual act of solving crimes. Stephen Root is given one of the few actual investigative arcs in your entire story, playing a wood expert who helps to track down the man who kidnapped the Lindbergh baby. There is so much rich story material to be mined here, so many interesting and little-seen tales, and yet all the while we’re held at arms length to see J. Edgar have to defend his beloved Bureau against meddling politicians and a succession of presidents.
At the same time, in the 1960s “modern” scenes of Hoover approaching the end of career, we see a man who we can scarcely correlate with his younger self, because the gap between the end of the “past” scenes and the beginning of the “modern” scenes is 30 years. What happened in that time? What exactly made him ascribe such power and danger to the burgeoning civil rights movement?
Who cares, you seem to say, we still have to talk about his repressed homosexuality and his cross-dressing.
Yes, every salacious rumor against J. Edgar is put on screen, and while this could have been compelling it all just comes off as flat and unintentionally funny. These scenes are given such dramatic import that it feels as though they were lifted from a golden age costume melodrama. When the disparate narrative threads of J. Edgar’s autobiographical dictation and his relationship with Clyde Tolson are finally brought together for a kind of resolution the result is a scene of such hamfisted affectation that I almost felt sorry for the actors asked to play beneath pounds of age-makeup. The cloying score does nothing to help the situation.
Yet your actors should be given some credit. It is obvious each of them brought their A-game to the proceedings, but each of them falls flat as a result of either scripting or direction. Naomi Watts, who is hit and miss as it is, plays as one-dimensional and under-served a character as I have seen in some time. Armie Hammer commits to the role of Tolson, but his open-mouthed smiling and the lighting used to make his cheeks glow often make him seem like he was displaced from a far, far different film. Leonardo DiCaprio is a brilliant actor, but even he can’t raise above the level of a television movie production, even though he played a part not entirely dissimilar from this one in The Aviator – a film that surpasses you, in every way, with such ease and skill that it might be fair to say that it never “passed” you so much as it was just born far ahead of you. This fact underlines the different in skill between Scorsese and Clint Eastwood with powerful finality.
In fact, the only way your direction even sticks out to me is in how unremarkable and utterly pedestrian it is. There is nothing in this film that feel as though it was being done by a professional, or someone with a desire to make something important or even interesting. The monochromatic silver hue that takes over the screen leaves scenes without definition or feeling, muting anything the set design or costuming could have achieved.
Had you tried harder, had you had an idea what you wanted your story thread to be about, you might have been able to skip the entire 1960s plot line and done what The Aviator did so well – tell the story of a man’s beginning, how it would shape him into the figure we all know so well, but leave him on a note of humanity that makes us feel pity or understanding. Instead, you opted for the worse narrative tropes and nonsense. Instead of becoming Hoover’s The Aviator you become the stultifying, bastard offspring of Public Enemies and Brokeback Mountain, with a little Citizen Kane mixed in. But where as those three movies are powerful, innovative, engaging pieces of cinema, you are a still-born, unnecessary film that can barely convince itself of its own necessity, let alone an audience.
Brian J. Roan