|Sorry, Leo...Brando's jowels were better.|
I don’t know what a bad Clint Eastwood movie looks like.
The man is an anomaly, the rare instance of movie star transitioning into filmmaking and becoming a better director than he ever was an actor. He makes films his way, rarely using terms like “action” and “cut,” keeping his sets relaxed, and his methods have resulted in Oscars, seemingly endless critical acclaim and a reputation as one of the finest directors of our time.
With J. Edgar, Eastwood turns to the enigmatic life of one of the most powerful men in American history, and the results are sadly and perplexingly underwhelming. Despite all the might of Eastwood’s direction and Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance, J. Edgar ends up feeling cold and cobbled together.
Much of the film is structured as a frame story by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the brilliant Milk). We meet J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) near the end of his life, in his imposing office at the U. S. Department of Justice. He brings in a young agent and begins dictating the story of how the FBI became strong, how he rose to be its leader, and how he revolutionized Federal crime-fighting in America.
The film then begins to zip back and forth between Hoover’s early years in the 1920s and his later years as he clashes with the likes of the Roosevelts, The Kennedys and Richard Nixon. Along the way we meet his associate director, partner and rumored lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his hypnotic mother (Judi Dench) and his long-serving secretary (Naomi Watts), the only people he keeps close in a world he considers wrought with enemies, spies and “radicals” bent on dismantling America from within.
The film chronicles many of the FBI’s earliest struggles, investigations into organized crime and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, its rise to power and public glorification in films like The G-Men and finally Hoover’s descent into self-insulation and paranoia as the world begins to change in the midst of the civil rights movement.
J. Edgar lacks much of the emotional drive of most of Eastwood’s other films, but that might be the point. Hoover was a man who never married, who rarely expressed affection, who kicked people out of the FBI for things like facial hair and drinking. He was a distant man, but even as Eastwood and Black attempt to take inside his mind and heart, they seem to rarely really peel back any of the layers. Not until the final 20 or so minutes does J. Edgar hit any kind of emotional core, and by then it’s too late. The film is slick and structured with obvious purpose, but the objective is missed.
Much of whatever heart this film does have is placed in DiCaprio’s hands. He performs capably as Hoover, but it’s far from his best war. Perhaps the encumbering and obvious-looking prosthetics used for the later Hoover years have something to do with that, but it’s frankly hard to tell. Hammer is also equal to the task, but Watts is painfully underused, confined to any outer office for much of the film while DiCaprio declaims and lectures his way through the often word-heavy, impact-light tale.
Part of why the impact is so tough to feel is that J. Edgar never seems to move in one particular direction. It’s going everywhere. Black focuses much of the early years story on the Lindbergh kidnapping and how it influenced the development of Hoover’s bureau, but it’s hard to find a cohesive point amid stories of film premieres, congressional hearings and other crimes. Likewise the later years focus in on Tolson’s illness and how it affects Hoover, the power of the Kennedys and how Hoover contends with them, and the changing of the guard as Nixon is sworn into the White House. All of these could be titanic events that pivot the film into new territory, but they serve as mere benchmarks of time, touchstones that allow the viewer to connect with film’s chronology, but not with the man at its center.
I still don’t know what a bad Clint Eastwood movie looks like, because J. Edgar is not a bad film. It is likely one of the best mediocre films ever made, and the explanation could be that Eastwood simply overreached. The enigma of Hoover isn’t solved by this film, nor is any clear sense of what he really stood for deep down portrayed. This is an aggressively timeline-driven biopic that has no coherent timeline, but also a love story that has no clear romance and a coming of age tale that has no clear line of development. It tries to be too much and ends being very little more than a well-polished docudrama. In the end, you walk out of J. Edgar feeling intrigued, as intrigued as you were when you walked in, but feeling like you missed the payoff.