Battle of the Biopics: The Iron Lady (2011) vs J Edgar (2011)

July 4, 2012 in Best Of, Movie Reviews, Reviews by pacejmiller

I’ve been thinking of ways to hasten the catching up of my movie reviews, but at the same time it didn’t feel fair to put some of the higher profile films in a four-film blitz. So I came up with a compromise. A head-to-head between two of the biggest biopics of 2011, Meryl Streep’s The Iron Lady and Leonardo DiCaprio’s J Edgar. Ladies first.

The Iron Lady (2011)

The Iron Lady was a little slow, not terribly exciting, and a little selective in the events it wanted to depict, but it does boast a powerhouse performance from Meryl Streep and tells the story of one of the most intriguing political figures ever.

I admit, I didn’t know much about Thatcher other than her pointy face, crooked teeth and trademark voice, and The Iron Lady helped illuminate her life to some extent.

The story is told through flashbacks, from 2008, where Thatcher is battling dementia, and relives some of the most pivotal moments of her astonishing political career. You don’t have to understand politics or British politics to get this film (though it will help) because it’s essentially about how an ordinary woman overcame the odds to rise to the top of the UK’s political ladder.

Thatcher is painted as a complex person: highly ambitious, relentless, cutthroat, and ultimately quite tragic. I know a lot of people kicked up a stink about the film because they hate Thatcher’s guts and think she butchered the country, but I get that she’s the protagonist of the movie, not the villain, so she had to at least have some redeeming qualities or have the ability to make people feel sorry for her.

Much of the film’s effectiveness comes from Streep’s performance. I don’t know enough about Thatcher or have seen enough video clips of her to know how close Streep is, but by most accounts it was a fantastic impersonation (similar to what people said about Philip Seymour Hoffman when he won for Capote). But was it worthy of the Oscar (again)? I’m not 100% sure.

The Iron Lady was an unusually short 105 minutes (for a movie of this kind), but it actually felt longer than 2 hours. It’s an intriguing biopic but will unlikely break into any “top biopic” lists any time soon.

3 stars out of 5

J Edgar (2011)

Clint. Leo. Armie (Hammer, that is). What’s there not to look forward to in J Edgar, the biopic about J Edgar Hoover, the most legendary FBI director of all time? While there are no cross-dressing scenes (apparently this was just an “unconfirmed” rumor), Eastwood makes it 100% clear in his film that Hoover (DiCaprio) was not only gay but for many years pined after his longtime assistant Clyde Tolson (Hammer).

Like The Iron Lady, this film is also told in flashback format. It begins as an aging Hoover tells his life story to Ed Westwick from Gossip Girl. The story follows a young Hoover working for A Mitchell Palmer in the US Justice Department in 1919, later rising to become the head of the FBI before introducing many of the most monumental improvements in crime solving techniques – in particular, criminal science.

While the film covers the most significant events and cases in Hoover’s life, such as the capture of John Dillinger and the Lindbergh kidnapping, the heart of the movie undoubtedly lies with Hoover’s sexuality and his tumultuous relationship with Tolson. It’s not quite Brokeback Mountain but I found it to be rather moving at times. It was hard to root for Hoover at times because he was deeply flawed and could be a colossal prick, but the love he felt for Tolson, at least for me, felt genuine and heartbreaking.

Even though he looked nothing like Hoover and was obviously a lot taller, Leo’s performance was, as expected, awesome. As was Armie Hammer’s. What I didn’t realize before watching the film was that it also starred Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s loyal secretary who stuck with him for a zillion years, and Judi Dench, who played Hoover’s somewhat frightening mother.

Look, when you have Clint Eastwood at the helm, you know you’re going to get some quality cinema. I don’t think it’s a stretch to call him, on a film-by-film basis, the best director around today, so naturally I am a little biased when it comes to his movies.

My problem with J Edgar for me was that the story lacked cohesion at times and certain plot points were covered with too much subtlety, to the extent where it became confusing and unclear. The biggest complaint, which you might have guessed, is the make-up. I couldn’t quite understand, with the advancements in modern technology and make-up techniques, how they managed to make both Leo and Armie look so bloody freaky and unnatural. They weren’t even that old (60s?) but looked like Guy Pearce in Prometheus.

Anyway, apart from that, I have to say I quite liked J Edgar. It’s not one of Clint’s best films, but it’s among his better ones. In any case, I liked it more than The Iron Lady.

4 stars out of 5

Winner, J Edgar