Clint Eastwood’s latest is a look at the life of one of the most powerful and mystifying men in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover is best known for helping to create the FBI and serving as its director until his death. You might be aware of other details about his life, rumors and such, and J. Edgar the movie does approach these topics, but never presents an opinion on them or on anything else really. The film is flawed, severely crippled by a distinct lack of purpose, despite strong work from star Leonardo DiCaprio.
J. Edgar begins with a common framing device, the aged main character recounting his life story (very strong shades of Chaplin). We then jump through time with nary a direction as we learn about the early days of the FBI. Hoover first fights the communists, then the hoodlums, and then solves the crime of the century, and so on. Along the way, we meet the three most important people in his life: his mother (Judi Dench), his secretary (Naomi Watts), and his right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The story is constantly interrupted by flashbacks to old-man-Hoover to witness the loneliness his dogged pursuit of law and order has caused him.
The film lacks any sense of rhythm or momentum. Something happens, then we move on to the next thing happening, then back to the future, and so on. We never have any sense of what is important or essential to the story. It’s one thing to avoid manipulating your audience, but it’s another thing to forget about them entirely. The whole film is muted. There is neither peak nor valley. This spills over to the dull cinematography and the utterly insipid score. I’d call the film vanilla, but that would be insulting to vanilla-lovers (a flavor I do enjoy). Vanilla would at least be a flavor, a choice, something that let’s me know what this film is trying to tell me.
If the message is Hoover was a great but flawed man fine, I’ll go with that, but there are so many unnecessary jaunts veering away from that point. If Eastwood is trying to investigate where these flaws stemmed from, then we should spend more time in his youth, with the fast talking go-getter with mommy issues. Perhaps it’s about how Hoover, “kills what he loves,” a statement he plainly makes in the most on-the-nose dialogue of the year. If this is the supposed route, then why not spend more time getting to know Tolson? As is, we never understand why the two men are joined at the hip. What is the attraction (other than Tolson looks like a Winklevoss)? Why so chaste? Why did Hoover do anything he did the way he did it? The answers might be unknown, but the film doesn’t even attempt to probe for them.
We are given small bits and pieces, like Hoover taking daily shots of some kind of drug late in life, but it leads nowhere and illuminates nothing. What we get instead is a cursory look at the man and the history of G-men. A lot of time is spent going over the Lindbergh kidnapping, which is deserving of its own movie, but it tells us nothing about Hoover. The closeted homosexual theories are touched upon, as well as the cross-dressing, but once again without color or insight to hold your interest.
Stuck in the middle of the perfunctory history lesson, Leo tries his hardest to bring pathos to a poorly written part. All you need to know is that he is convincing as both 24-year-old and 77-year-old Hoover. No small feat, but with more than 1 or 2 takes (Eastwood is a notoriously quick director) and a script with some life in it, his performance could have been magical instead of simply commendable. The film, however, has nothing else to recommend, it’s a syllabus without a teacher.