The Oscar bait was set. Clint Eastwood behind the camera, Leonardo Di Caprio in front of it, together portraying arguably one of the most secretive and powerful men ever to have changed America. A man who founded and expanded one of the most iconic crime fighting forces in the world but also a man whose own personal life was the source of intense speculation: his sexuality and his all consuming need for knowledge and power. J. Edgar was primed for great things, but unfortunately, the end result falls jarringly flat.
The problem is not, as most people expected, with the casting of Di Caprio. There were clamours of trepidation when the news was released. He was too young, too fresh-faced, and too clean to be playing Hoover. But Di Caprio comes through with menace and style. His first words on the screen, drawn out and accented, highlight the grimace of the aged Hoover, his voice perpetually angry underneath the wobble of latex jowls (he does however look disconcertingly like Philip Seymour Hoffman). Throughout the film Di Caprio delivers a solid performance, portraying the fluttering insecurity of the young J.Edgar perfectly. It’s all there in the slight stammer, the clipped accent when faced with more powerful men, the narrowing of the eyebrows. The two stand-out moments of the acting however, and indeed, of the film, are both centred around Hoover’s repressed homosexuality.
The first is at the death bed of Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench), a woman who once coldly told him that she would rather have ‘a dead son than a daffodil.’ In her death, for just a few moments, Hoover feels a certain kind of twisted freedom. With shaking hands and a barely audible ‘What are you doing, Edgar?’ under his breath, he pulls his mother’s dress on, looking at himself in a dimly lit mirror with an equal mixture of disgust and overwhelming liberty. And then he breaks down entirely, and weeps, a broken man. The second is the brutally direct conversation he has with Armie Hammer’s Clyde Tolson, his protégée, his friend, and the man he has reticent sexual feelings for. With a bruised face, lips cut, and bellowing at Tolson not to leave, begging him to stay with him, you begin to have faith that the film is going to hit its stride. Alas.
The problem with the film as whole is that it is simply too long, too tedious and entirely too unfocused. Eastwood’s barrage of flashbacks (mainly to the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and then later to the Kennedy wire taps) are too short and scattered to hold the viewer’s attention for any period, but then also played out for so long that they lack any kind of tension or intrigue. The weightier points; namely the relationship with Tolson and the way that he creates the near impregnable FBI are too easily passed over. The supporting cast are bland and almost entirely superficial, and the secret files that once held an entire country’s imagination are barely even discussed, let alone examined and dissected. His meteoric rise to power, from the days when he was out capturing communists to when he sits in his fortress, a reservoir of knowledge on anyone and everyone he has even the mildest distaste for at his hands, is played out with no real conviction. You don’t care. You don’t even understand how he got there. It means nothing.
J. Edgar is a film with a run time of two hours forty minutes that feels like it’s five hours long. It’s unfortunately not gripping, compelling, entertaining or fun. Di Caprio will probably get an Oscar nod, but apart from that, there’s really not all that much to take away from this offering.
By Prithu Banerjee
With J. Edgar soon to be released and The Iron Lady having opened in recent weeks, political biopics are the talk of tinseltown. But amongst these is a far more surprising production, namely The Lady. The tale of Aung San Suu Kyi has been well documented, and it’s no great shock to see a film made of her life. What is odd, however, is that it should be directed by Luc Besson. Besson is essentially an action filmmaker. If you know his work it’s likely through watching The Fifth Element or Leon, films about aliens and a hitman respectively. The Lady has been critically panned, branded worthy but dull, quite a contrast to Besson’s most successful films. The Fifth Element, for those who haven’t seen it, is utterly mental, totally ridiculous and never likely to be accused of excessive worthiness.
Understanding why The Lady was made is key to explaining the prevalence of political biopics. Besson has made a shedload of money, but has never attracted much critical acclaim. A film about a politician is automatically branded a ‘serious’ film. Thus, if a director, producer, writer or actor wants to gain critical recognition, a political biopic is a good bet. There’s a scene in the TV show Extras where Kate Winslet, playing herself, remarks that the reason she took on a role as a nun in the holocaust is that ‘if you do a film about the holocaust, you’re guaranteed an Oscar’. Ironically, Winslet did finally won her Oscar for The Reader, playing a Nazi, and a similar, if less crude principle applies to political biopics.
It’s a fact that biopics win a disproportionate number of awards, and a good performance in the leading role is a near guarantee of success. Since 2002, all bar three of the best leading male Oscars have gone to actors playing real people, with portrayals of Harvey Milk and Idi Amin bringing nods for Sean Penn and Forest Whitaker respectively.
And, just as importantly, biopics make money. Films about controversial figures have a ready-made audience. It’s generally accepted that The Iron Lady failed to address some of the key disputes about Thatcher’s reign, the critical reception has been lukewarm and it only went on wide release on January 13th, yet it’s already made back its budget. The presence of a recognisable name on a poster attracts attention and draws viewers automatically. The biopic seems to be growing ever more prevalent, and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon.
Year of the Director – Jonathan Looms
It is sometimes claimed that the era of iconic directors has long since passed, replaced by recycled ideas and conspicuous CGI. 2012 will prove them wrong, with an embarrassment of top directors releasing films.
Clint Eastwood releases J. Edgar in January, focusing on the career of the FBI’s first director and starring Leonardo DiCaprio at the top of his game. January also sees Steven Spielberg’s first film of the year War Horse arrive in the UK, adapted from the book by Michael Morpurgo about a horse sold into World War I and one boy’s mission to bring him home.
Tim Burton unveils his latest feature in May based on the cult TV show Dark Shadows and centring on the life of a vampire. Given it’s a Burton film and stars both Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter you can probably imagine the look of the film, but the film also boasts a number of other talented actors including Eva Green, Chloë Moretz and Christopher Lee.
Ridley Scott’s Prometheus lands in June, his first foray into science fiction since 1982’s Blade Runner. It stars an impressive cast of Noomi Rapace, Charlize Theron and Michael Fassbender, but the real question that everyone wants to know is: will it be a prequel to Alien?
After the US elections Spielberg will offer up his second film, Lincoln. The world’s biggest director is making a film about the American Civil War, and he has Daniel Day Lewis playing the hero. It is not a question whether this will win Oscars, only how many.
Quentin Tarantino rounds off the year in his usual quiet fashion with Django Unchained, a revenge flick about a freed Mississippi slave, saying that he wants to make a movie that will “deal with everything that America has never dealt with because it’s ashamed of it”. Jamie Foxx has been cast as Django, with Leonardo DiCaprio as the slave owner.
(Another) Year of the Superhero – Vicky Fryer
2012 represents a landmark year for the `humble` superhero movie: one franchise shall end; another be reborn; and a third rise to heights beyond mortal imagining. Potentially. We speak, respectively, of The Dark Knight Rises, The Amazing Spider-Man and The Avengers.
First up chronologically comes The Avengers. Oh my, this film has a lot to live up to. It’s been four years in the making, which sounds normal, except those years were not spent on this picture alone, but five more besides. Two Iron Man films, The Incredible Hulk, Thor, Captain America: it all ends here. In May 2012, we will see whether Marvel – helped by a certain Joss Whedon – can manage the ultimate team-up movie.
Afterwards, we have time to recover from either success or failure, before a double whammy in July, beginning with The Amazing Spider-Man’s return to our screens. It’s all change in a reboot allegedly returning to the comics: Andrew Garfield replaces Tobey Maguire as our hero, back in high school without Mary Jane and battling Rhys Ifans’s Lizard. After the franchise’s implosion post-Spider-Man 3, this offering’s welfare will be watched very closely indeed.
And finally, mere weeks later, the only superhero movie more highly anticipated than Avengers arrives: The Dark Knight Rises, the finale to Christopher Nolan’s Batman trilogy, which has redefined superhero movies and, for some, films in general. Less than a year before release, its plot is still shrouded in mystery; all we have is its cast (Anne Hathaway as Catwoman, Tom Hardy as Bane – `the man who broke the Bat`) and sheer anticipation. However, Nolan has always risen to the occasion before (no pun intended), and if this is only their equal, we shall be very lucky indeed.
2012 – the Year of the Superhero, if you will – is looking very, very promising indeed.
Year of the Literary Adaptation – Hugo Gordon
The film is never as good as the book, they say, but those people have never read Jurassic Park. Next year, several weighty contenders will try to further disprove the old adage. First there’s the much anticipated The Hobbit Part. 1, which after years of delays finally started filming this year. You might want to reserve your place now to beat the rush. Those who suffered through A-Level English may not be so keen on The Great Gatsby. Baz Luhrmann however never had to endure such travails, and next year will see the release of his adaptation, filmed in 3D. Let me say that again. The Great Gatsby. In 3D. No one’s really sure why. Not much is known about Ang Lee’s adaptation of Life of Pi – fitting, perhaps, for such a mysterious book. Expect beautiful cinematography and a meditative style. There will be those of us however who shun such high culture classics, and instead simply desire to see the undead chase after Brad Pitt. Look no further than Marc Forster’s adaptation of the excellent Max Brooks zombie novel, World War Z. Filming has already started in Glasgow, probably because the city already looked like it was suffering through a zombie apocalypse. All four films are released December 2012. Which will get your money?