Does the Blu-ray release do J. Edgar justice, or relegate it bargain-bin status?
As a student (and teacher) of history, I had high hopes for J. Edgar, the Clint Eastwood biopic that promised to tell a full story about the enigmatic leader of the FBI. So much of Hoover’s life is wrapped in mystery: did he have secret files on everyone in Washington? Did this information translate into job security? And how about that crossdressing fetish? On the outside, all the pieces appeared to signal a potential Oscar contender; and while director Clint Eastwood (Letters from Iwo Jima, Gran Torino) has assembled all the right pieces, he sadly bases most of it on conjecture and opinion rather than on evidence. If you know nothing about J. Edgar Hoover, this movie might come across as a brilliant adaptation, surely one worthy of consideration at this year’s awards shows. Yet, the truth is otherwise, which lessens its impact and leaves you with more questions than answers, a typical realization when studying Hoover.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, Shutter Island), plays Hoover with a style that makes you feel uncomfortable every time you see him. DiCaprio is incredibly skilled, and regardless what side of the fence you stand, one cannot deny his acumen to slip into roles will someday net him an Oscar. It’s in this world that we learn of Hoover’s efforts to professionalize the FBI, an agency which resembled more Mayberry than the nation’s premiere investigative service. But it was Hoover’s personal life which is the subject of the film, and in those scenes, particularly those surrounding his complex relationships with his mother (Judi Dench, Casino Royale) and his assistant Tolston (Armie Hammer, The Social Network), DiCaprio shines. One interesting appearance is Jeffrey Donovan (Michael Westen, Burn Notice) as Robert Kennedy – the constant character actor, Donovan is happily at home but only appears in a few scenes. The scene between him and DiCaprio is probably the best of the film. The problem is, any effort to tell what happened between Kennedy and Hoover, or to appreciate the great performance of Naomi Watts (The International) is lost, as J.Edgar is based loosely on his life. It’s one thing to tell a popular interpretation of an important historical figure, but to do so without any knowledge of whether your central character actually did any of the things you are showing, and that this fact forms the premise of your 137 minute biopic, it’s easy to understand why moviegoers might feel cheated.
The soundtrack here is perhaps the best part of the presentation. The lossless DTS-HD Master 5.1 Audio provides plenty of background imagery, such as office workers, street scenes, and crowds. It doesn’t get in the way of the film, but happily exists alongside the audio tracks which are clear and easy to understand. The music track, composed and performed Eastwood himself, is simple and effective. In the end, it’s effective in many aspects.
Hollywood’s continued cost-cutting efforts in the home video market continue to befuddle me, as is evidenced by J. Edgar’s paltry, insufficient, and uninspiring single feature. Don’t blink, or you might miss it:
- “The Most Powerful Man in the World” (HD, 18 minutes) – This detailed overview of Hoover’s life (the little we know of it) is visited by the movie’s stars, its director and producers. Eastwood looks uncomfortable here, providing very little insight into writer Dustin Lance Black’s script, and instead punting to his actors to tell Hoover’s story. After watching this, it’s clear just little the public really knows about Hoover.
A good video and audio transfer aside, J. Edgar is a mess. It’s uneven and historically filled with more holes than I care to share. Perhaps if the special features had been more robust, I could recommend it to compare movie to fact, but not in this case. Sadly, all the parts here do not constitute a whole; wait to purchase this until a better set of features is released, and only seek it as a rental if your other choices are not available.