It is hard to make a good biopic. Mostly because, usually, a person’s life, the events in it and the order in which they happen don’t correspond well to the conventional structure of a fiction film. So filmmakers have to rearrange, squeeze and fit in and sometimes come up with all kinds of artificial devices in order to have a proper three-arc structure with two clear plot points and a satisfying climax.
The most common device used by filmmakers to make the story fit the structure is the flashback, possibly with voice-over. This gives the filmmaker the chance to tell two parts of a life’s story intercut rather than straightforward. Preferably this is a flashback in which an old person remembers his or her youth. Effective, but a bit boring. Another device is the writing down of memoirs. This is the device Clint Eastwood chose for J. Edgar, his biopic of legendary FBI founder and director J. Edgar Hoover. Also effective, and slightly less corny than the flashback.
Leonardo diCaprio plays Hoover, both in his prime and in his old age. Many have commented on the make-up and prosthetics of the old version of the character, deeming them unconvincing. I disagree. Hoover was completely recognizable, and I had never the idea that I was watching the actor diCaprio. What I found more distracting was the high-pitched voice with a drawl of a Southern accent. It may be a realistic impersonation ofHoover, but not pleasant to listen to.
DiCaprio does a good job, although this is not a performance of the same quality as the ones he gave in Catch Me If you Can, Shutter Island or Inception. Judi Dench is enjoyably creepy as Hoover’s overbearing mother, although the suggested causal relationship between Hoover’s alleged sexual orientation and his relation with his mother is an anachronistic example of ‘momism’ and can be experienced as quite insulting to homosexual people. The stand out performance of the film however is by Armie Hammer, the actor who had is breakthrough in David Fincher’s The Social Network. There he played two twin brothers, here he plays the old and the young version of Clyde Tolson,Hoover’s closest friend and ally and, some say, his lover. And he is very, very good. Unfortunately Naomi Watts is somewhat underused as Helen Gandy,Hoover’s lifelong secretary. That is a pity because when she is allowed to act, she shines.
It is so hard to do a good biopic. J. Edgar is another example of films that just want to squeeze in too much. Much like Oliver Stone’s Nixon and Alexander, or the fictional biopic The Curious Case of Benjamin Button. Much more successful examples are Walk the Line, which focused on the early part of Johnny Cash’ career, and Eastwood’s own Invictus (2009). That last film is to me a key example of a good biopic. In that film Eastwood dids not tell the whole story of Nelson Mandela’s life, but chose to capture one period, the Rugby World Cup of 1995, in order to let all the important parts of the man’s character and history come to the surface.
J. Edgar, unfortunately, is nothing like Invictus. It is too long, and in the end a bit boring. And it uses too many of the clichés of the biopic genre. Clint Eastwood obviously played it safe after the disappointing responses to last year’s Hereafter. I, however, would rather see him experimenting more, and would take for granted the inevitable occasional miss.