Wednesday, 18 January 2012

Review: J.Edgar

Rating: 15
Duration: 137 minutes

It's fair to deduce that the decades of being a film star have served Clint Eastwood well during his transition from on camera to behind it; a change that has seen him embark in more directing and less acting, especially over the past ten years.

With acclaimed titles like Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, Gran Torino and Changeling to his name, it would seem the ageing maestro can do no wrong after what can only be described as a glittering acting career. Recent form has dipped though, following the drab, plod-along bore fest of Invictus that invites you to take forty winks after the opening minutes, and one mustn't forget Hereafter, which by comparison would induce you into a coma.

J. Edgar is a biographical drama based on the life the FBI's founder and first Director John Edgar Hoover, as his early life is documented with his rise through the ranks to power. From the beginning we are granted mere snippets of his childhood and early manhood where his mother (played by Dame Judi Dench), features as an overbearing, controlling matriarch that uncomfortably forces an opinion of a man renowned for privacy. 

Explored also is his private life and alleged romance with his Associate Director and esteemed friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), as both Edgar's personal and professional life are portrayed in detail with the use of flashbacks and flash forwards that are stylishly cut, yet overwhelming (especially in the opening twenty minutes) with the constant switch in time periods. In fact, these sporadic shifts can confuse and stifle the enjoyment somewhat as Eastwood over-ambitiously attempts to squeeze too much content into badly constructed plot. Other than the odd moment of confusion, the majority of the story plays out in a fairly digestible manner as we become familiar with the certain aesthetic of different time frames, thus following the narrative easier.

Arguably the biggest logistical problem - after all, this is a biopic based on real people and events - is that a lot of what we see in Edgar's personal life is simply speculation: the relationship behind closed doors with his controlling, assertive mother, social liaisons concerning his PA Helen (Naomi Watts), as well as the ongoing, supposed relationship with Clyde aren't based on any evidence. Juxtapose this with the fact-based events of Edgar's career, innovation, ideas regarding forensic evidence and so forth, it feels rather imbalanced in terms of an authentic depiction.

What is conveyed well are particular elements of the story, most notably the atmosphere that's created: scenes in restaurants, bars, clubs, character attire, all ooze 1930's gangster culture and the power hierarchy of the time. During such scenes, and indeed for the entirety of the movie, Di Caprio gives a strong, solid performance with a dynamic presence that essentially carries the film. Watts, Dench and Hammer provide good support too, with their character inclusion spanning most of the narrative's sixty or so years.

Whilst some biopics can feel laborious, this never becomes too strained and only really suffers in the conclusive stages in terms of sluggishness. For the most part J. Edgar is an entertaining film that is surprisingly accessible considering the subject matter and context, and aside from the sporadic time shifts, it's a simple tale in comparison to other film counterparts.

Unfortunately, as with a lot of biographies, the two hour seventeen minute length is a little over-long. In honesty, at least thirty minutes could be cut and the audience would be none-the-wiser, with the film perhaps being too sentimental at times, whereas it might have benefited from a slicker and more direct pacing.

Apart from the clumsy manner in which Edgar and Clyde's relationship is handled, other personal relations flow smoother and the material Eastwood uses is handled well, if not subjective. Not that the exploration of a gay relationship is anything to frown up, but when it is constructed as awkwardly as it is here, not to mention the fact it's not based on any proven truth, it ends up providing the piece with mere invented frivolity, whereas focusing on Edgar's success within the FBI would have made for a more interesting study.

VERDICT: J. Edgar is a solidly made and pleasant film to experience. Eastwood directs to his assured and more than competent ability, but struggles to squeeze his enormous amount of source material into the already lengthy duration, instead opting for a rather selective approach. Di Caprio offers a confident and sparkling performance alongside Watts and Hammer, but some story threads feel a little forced, especially as the moments intending to emotionally evoke are based on sheer speculation rather than fact (this is a biopic after all). It's surprisingly accessible, if not a little disorientated with its interjected scenes and, due to the way certain parts are executed, doesn't engage with us as much as previous efforts.