J. Edgar dodges details. Well, maybe it doesn’t dodge them so much as it touches on them. The feud with the Kennedy’s is tapered off with a somewhat disingenuous phone call. His technical accomplishments are pushed into background activity. Hoover’s bending of the rules are displayed without any thrust.
The approach has a purpose. The multitude of publicly known activities, printed in biographies or other media, doesn’t necessarily need a retelling, more so under the guidance of Clint Eastwood. Instead, Eastwood captures Edgar as his most vulnerable, the personal life away from the public eye. His heavy handedness in an office setting turns into a terrified, stuttering anti-social at the mere thought of dancing with a woman.
For a while, J. Edgar handles sexual orientation deftly, a small touch or sly piece of conversation. What begins as an awkward job interview blossoms into lifelong loyalty, without either person able to speak up being such public figures.
The approach is interesting, both from a biopic perspective and in turn Hoover’s on-screen persona. Leonardo DiCaprio sits in the front of the camera with extensive age makeup, convincing even under duress. This is not a film meant to be in consideration as an effects powerhouse, but the multitude of vintage recreations outside Edgar’s office window and aging appliances is pure spectacle. That is assuming one can ignore Armie Hammer’s rather overstated appliance.
Eastwood tells the story as it needs to be told, producing a product stuck within a tight time frame and covering decades of innovations, inside deals, corruption, and shaky loopholes for the sake of the FBI. Hoover is portrayed as bold and loyal, whether that is in the office or in his personal life. Told with a jumpy time frame that mixes past with present, as a whole J. Edgar feels front loaded, and it should. At some point, the passion for innovations was lost, replaced by growing hysteria and rampant mistrust. He found solace in few people.
J. Edgar will either captivate or disappoint. If a replication of his glory days as he pushes through the ranks is the expectation, the film collapses during an aging second half. If aspects of Hoover’s life -including those intimate entanglements- are of interest, Eastwood’s piece works. The methodology cannot be rejected as wrong; after all, why make a film based on widely known and accepted evidence? The idea fits, even if the execution stumbles in the private life transition.
One of J. Edgar’s consistent HD concerns is aliasing. Strangely, the same thing plagued a prior Eastwood Warner disc, Invictus. While not as alarming as that rugby piece, small objects shimmer and flicker throughout Edgar. It never seems to find a solution.
Aside from the aliasing, it’s important to know how dark the film is. Heavy contrast is usually an attribute associated with Eastwood-directed pieces, while this one takes it into different territory. Characters are obscured by the lack of light, and detail is routinely crushed in the shadows. There is little transition from light to dark, at times appearing more like an inked comic book. Light, apparently, was not part of the FBI offices well into the Nixon era.
That’s not to insinuate the image is oppressive or needlessly overdone. If anything, the black levels are brilliant in their intensity, leaving those portions receiving light to appear increasingly striking and intense. Even with a dilution of color -leaving flesh tones and primaries flattened- images remain pure and vivid. It emulates Edgar’s personality in a way, both withdrawn and intense at the same time.
High fidelity detail that does escape the hearty darkness is exceptional. Tense close-ups are given heavy focus to draw out facial definition. Expensive suits are given their due, crucial as a plot device. Offices, with busy, cluttered desks and assorted objects are presented with enough clarity to make the set decoration visible. J. Edgar is unique in its look, and appealing for it.
You have about three minutes to prepare for a hearty, bass-digging explosion in a movie where such an event isn’t likely. That’s when a building goes boom, and the effect is spectacular, more so if you’re not expecting it… which you are now. Oops.
Warner’s mix provides activity as needed, bolstering gunfire from tommy guns by sending debris careening through the soundfield as often as bullets will travel. A raid at 22-minutes captures the chaos and panic of the situation, with screaming reverberating in the rears. Panicked voices flee not only the room, but the mix itself. It’s quite natural.
Dialogue seats in the center without any motion, balanced well. Various committee and political hearings will balloon the words out, creating a spacious environment in which the microphones move the sound. That’s effective and clean.
Looking for deep insight into Edgar’s life? Maybe spectacular behind-the-scenes footage? Then you’re going to be disappointed. One featurette is included, possibly indicating a future double dip. A Complicated Man is as uncomplicated as they come, 12-minutes of actor insight and slim historical context.