Don't say you weren't warned: even the marketing department at Warners can't muster an ad campaign that disguises the dismal, depressing muddle that is J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's entry for Oscar honors this year. If you're looking for upbeat or cheerful, don't bother. This is serious, and you will be punished. Particularly if you're a criminal, or a Communist.
"Communism," in all its ill-defined fearmongering glory, is the real bugaboo in J. Edgar, but Eastwood can't be bothered to try and sort out what, if any, aspect of Hoover's anti-Communist zeal might actually have more than personal animus driving it; indeed, this is the most curiously apolitcal biopic about such a significant political animal I can ever recall. Though Eastwood is nominally a Republican, he's not an especially political filmmaker, not in the sense of, say, Oliver Stone or Rob Reiner, and J. Edgar could arguably use a point of view, one way or another. But that's not, in the end, the biggest problem here.
As tempting as it is to blame Eastwood for why this film doesn't work - and this, along with Eatswood's similarly tame yet tortured approach to Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil suggests some real issues with gay folk - I think the more likely culprit is screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, fresh from his bravura retelling of the story of Harvey Milk in Milk. That film's brilliance - growing so fully out of its smart script - gave Black a wide berth for future work. But J. Edgar is proof that Black isn't a magician. In trying to explore the potential connection between Hoover and his deputy, Clyde Tolson, Black has little to go on, and he fills in the obvious blanks with generic motivations full of problematic stereotypes that neither illuminate the man, improve the perception of gays overall, or provide much that is emotionally satisfying to a viewer. But the most glaring problem is striuctural: the film, like others recently, suffers from excessive cross-cutting between two different periods of Hoover's life, choppily edited and sloppily overlapping to no real useful end.
The ostensible hook for the story is Hoover retelling his personal history in founding the FBI, a historical record that is actually kind of interesting, even despite Hoover's obvious attempts to cast himself as the hero of every tale and the genius behind every great decision. Black does an all right job establishing Hoover as an unreliable narrator, but then has nowhere to go: if Hoover's version can't be trusted, and we get no real alternative to it much of the time... then is any of this film to be believed?
As Hoover creates a federal role for law enforcement - essentially making it up as he goes, and using a lot of "grey areas" where laws at the time were vague - he establishes a standard for Bureau agents as fine, upstanding men who live beyond reproach. Among his early recruits is Clyde Tolson, a Georgetown law graduate interested, though not deeply, in the idea of the FBI. As the film tells it, an instantly smitten Hoover hires Tolson almost immediately, and quickly makes him his closest confidante.. and by confidante, we are meant to mean "lovers", though probably at some distance in a much more closeted time.
Much of this is speculative, and Black does little to break out of generalities; there's some nods towards a gay past hidden from most people's view... but Black's gott little to go on, and it shows. Nor is the story helped by scenes of J. Edgar and his deeply controlling mother which underline old fashioned notions that gay men, especially twisted ones, have unnatural attachments to the female parent. What's on display here is often insulting, and kind of uncomfortable.
I haven't made mention of Leonardo DiCaprio's presence in the title role... mostly because there isn't much to say. Like a lot of his adult work, DiCaprio seems to have matured into an actor of limited range and somewhat lazy habits. For a film where he's in nearly every scene, he's remarkably unremarkable, rarely interesting, and generally emotionally inert. Much like Tom Cruise, DiCaprio seems frustrated that "movie star" doesn't equal "serious actor" when Oscar voting season rolls around. I'm hard pressed to see how he'll overcome that now.
Of the others, Armie Hammer has the better, more emotionally layered role as Clyde Tolson, and he does what he can... which isn't much under layers of aging prosthetics and lashed into narrow suits. I'm reminded of Madonna's line to Beatty in Dick Tracy - "I know... you can't decide whether to hit me or kiss me. I get a lot of that." Beatty's instincts are better - that dilemma is more intriguing, sexier if we don't see it literally play out. Hammer has to actually play it, and the effect is largely disastrous.
As Mother Hoover, Judi Dench is steely, even subtly effective (reminding me, oddly, of Joan Collins, say, playing Joan Crawford), but to no good end. Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover's longtime personal secretary, and the keeper of his secrets, has little to do and remains an emotional cipher. Of the various star cameos, I'd say Jefferey Donovan (Burn Notice) really succeeds at pulling off Bobby Kennedy, for whatever its worth. Poor Ed Westwick, as one of Hoover's agent dictaphones, seems cruelly underused, as do the others. And, for what it's worth, itr's a measure of Eastwood's desperation to give this film any small jolt of glamour he can that he shoehorns in both Ginger Rogers and Shirley Tample in disquieting, even disturbing cameos (especially his use of Temple, which is typically twisted genius on his part). All that, and Charles Lindbergh... and Eastwood still has a glum tale of two fullly dressed men who never take it off, never mind share more than a sad smooch.
Like most Eastwood efforts, this is a handsome and tasteful looking film, though Eastwood's current fascination with a sepia tone approach to the twenties and thirties is getting to be cliche. That, combined with this film's muddled politics and lack of any real underlying theme, suggests to me that Eastwood would be better off with material he can connect with more deeply. J. Edgar amounts to an interesting, if mistaken, exercise, with no real point, and little to say about its subject that hasn't been said - and snickered over - before. And, like a lot of serious "Oscar driven" efforts, J. Edgar substitutes grim unlikability for an actual serious, thoughtful examination of a difficult subject (like for instance, figuring out what's good or bad in the FBI that Hoover wrought... just as a for instance). If Black is going to be Hollywood's go-to gay script guy then he's both got to get stronger in overall scripting, and figure out which subjects, really, are worthy. J. Edgar does not seem to be one of them... and I'm not even one of the people who finds him all that awful.