Skeletons in the Closet
Is the long life and divisive career of J. Edgar Hoover, the F.B.I. director who held on to power for decades, enduring many turbulent eras and presidencies, always compiling secret files and both manipulating and dodging the press, too much for one film? This well-intentioned, well-mounted, but overall disappointing Clint Eastwood film suggests it is.
The film, starring Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, covers a great deal of ground. Its main concern, or at least the element most people will leave discussing, is the intense, yet also stunted love affair between Hoover and dashing male colleague Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film suggests their hesitant affection, and the closeted Hoover's related emotional constipation, influenced, impacted, and reflected the intense secrecy and cutthroat gamesmanship of his professional life. The film also plays as an F.B.I.: The Best of the Early Years compilation, touching on everything from the Lindbergh kidnapping to Hoover's lionized gangster foes, including John Dillinger.
Unfocused and honestly a bit bizarre, the 137-minute J. Edgar suffers from extremely even, lifeless pacing. Hopscotching through time via a framing device which finds an elderly, ever-vainglorious Hoover (DiCaprio buried in caked-on old-age makeup) recounting his life story to writers for a legacy-soldifying publication, the film almost never comes alive. No adventure, no romance, no real political suspense. I know this isn't popcorn entertainment (Eastwood's now standard-issue melancholy piano score and monochromatic "noir" cinematography all but say, "This is serious. Give it an Oscar or seven!"), but it's so high and mighty it becomes dry. The abduction of a celebrity's baby in the night and an ensuing media craze should never be dull, yet it is here. Sure, the grim outcome is well-known, but as Michael Mann proved with Public Enemies (or indeed Eastwood himself with Letters from Iwo Jima and Changeling), even history can be electrifying and surprising on the big screen. J. Edgar just doesn't have the juice.
Don't blame DiCaprio, though. He's terrific, per usual, perfectly embodying Hoover, from his heft ("solid weight," two characters say) to his angst to his ungainly inwardness. It's not a pleasant performance or one with any cool movie-star moments, but DiCaprio doesn't seem to care, plowing ahead and following this half tragic, half nasty figure wherever he leads. Armie Hammer, too, shines, despite spending half his scenes under liver-spotted old-age makeup so unconvincing it could be sold in Halloween shops next fall. A scene between these two where a raging confrontation turns into a raw passionate embrace is the film's best by far, a real shot in the arm. Though she's obviously game, Naomi Watts is under utilized as Helen Gandy, Hoover's long-term, extremely loyal secretary. The screenplay doesn't have much time for the character, and it's never apparent why she is so dedicated to her oft-malevolent enigma of a boss. In a major misfire of a casting decision, actors have been hired to briefly play iconic politicians Hoover encountered and grappled with throughout his career--Jeffrey Donovan as Robert F. Kennedy, Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon--resulting in a couple supremely bad impersonations. Clever use of archival footage would have been preferable.
Clint Eastwood can be a great director, but he missed it this time. I almost wonder if he was betrayed by his own famous economy (in time, under budget). A story this big, so full of drama and history and even a bit of perversion, needed a dose of madness, not an old hand going through the prestige-pic motions. Despite a fantastic, Oscar-caliber lead performance by DiCaprio, J. Edgar represents a hell of a tale rendered toothless and largely inert.