An exercise of stultifying blandness and dramatic inertia, “J. Edgar” is second- or third-tier Eastwood, the sort of respectably proficient but forgettable work that he did all too often before “Million Dollar Baby” reminded audiences that one of Hollywood’s oldest dogs still has some fight in him. A sort of “Brokeback Mountain” for the blue-state set, the film operates dually as a chronicle of Hoover’s rise and fall as Director of the FBI, and a skillfully bloodless depiction of his complicated personal life, in particular his relationship with Associate Director Clyde Tolson. Undermined by old-age makeup, a story largely unbothered by chronology (or even dramatic momentum), and no throughlines or uniting themes other than what the characters dutifully explain, “J. Edgar” is a would-be prestige picture that’s sorely lacking in emotional power.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, an aging FBI director who decides to dictate his memoirs because, as he plainly puts it, “it’s time this generation learns my side of the story.” Flashing back to his early days, Hoover was born to an endlessly doting mother Annie (Judi Dench), and primed for greatness. Although his brusque demeanor wins him few friends, it proves to be an asset professionally, he rises quickly through the ranks of the Justice Department, and by the age of 30 he becomes acting director of the FBI. His personal life, meanwhile, is largely empty of meaningful relationships, but he finds a reliable and loyal secretary in Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and a debonair companion (and Associate FBI Director) in Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Reinventing investigative work from the ground up, Hoover soon creates the foundations of modern forensic science, even as his personal insecurities and vendettas threaten to undermine his legacy.
If you ever wanted to see DiCaprio and Hammer in senior-citizen makeup, then look no further than “J. Edgar.” The problem isn’t the texture or authenticity of the aging, it’s the fact that audiences will never forget that they’re watching two of Hollywood’s best-looking young actors pretending to adopt the gravitas that comes with age; whether he’s playing the character at 24 or 77, DiCaprio has the same reedy voice, and Hammer seems terrified that his face might rip clean off if he moves his neck more than a fraction of an inch. That’s less a problem of this film than almost all films in which an actor or actress is made to look a variety of ages, but given how much time Eastwood spends gazing at DiCaprio as his jowls flap angrily, it’s particularly distracting. That said, it’s nice to know that Naomi Watts may mature into the next generation’s Helen Mirren, as a sexpot septuagenarian.
The bigger problem is that nothing comes organically in the story, and there’s no momentum; one of our colleagues accurately said of the film, it has the curious balance of being “both boring and melodramatic.” Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) half-effectively depicts Hoover’s groundbreaking methodology, but the film spends probably half of its running time on the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s child, which is unquestionably important but makes the film feel uneven, whether as an audience member you see it as a celebration or condemnation of the title character. And given that material’s importance, its impact is curiously underwhelming, because the audience never gets a sense of whether Black and Eastwood think he accomplished anything positive, or if he was a petty, attention-seeking charlatan who prioritized personal feelings over procedure and fact. Ironically, there’s no doubt how Hoover sees himself, but the film bends over backwards to portray his achievements evenly, which ultimately makes for a dry and uninteresting story, no matter how well-vetted it is by actual history.
Then of course there’s Hoover’s sexuality, which is dealt with as euphemistically as if this biopic were made in the Production Code era while he was alive. Other than literally one kiss, Black and Eastwood actively circumnavigate any behavior that couldn’t be construed multiple ways. Mind you, this isn’t because anyone involved seems homophobic, but because, again, there’s a consistent ambivalence about who and what Hoover was in the writing and storytelling. At the same time, this is where the film’s only source of emotional energy comes from, and there are a handful of beautiful scenes that highlight Hoover’s hidden vulnerability. But when Hoover asks aloud, “Do I kill everything that I love?” Black bludgeons the viewer with obviousness (and quite frankly unnecessary clarity), suggesting that a better title for the film might have been “J. Edgar: The Thing About Him Is, He Was Gay.”
The saddest part is that underneath all of the make-up and the innuendo, DiCaprio and Hammer both give terrific performances. DiCaprio’s young-man voice notwithstanding, his commitment to the character is undeniable (and admirable), while Hammer pulls off the remarkable feat of seeming like an equal partner rather than Hoover’s trophy. Meanwhile, Eastwood’s productivity is undeniable and his proficiency is masterful, but as often as he hits the bullseye, he strays either too far into melodrama or not far enough, and letting a story like Hoover’s just sort of happen. Ultimately, a movie doesn’t need to purely vilify or honor a real person in order to make their story interesting, however in the case of “J. Edgar” the uncertainty and unwillingness to commit to a point of view, creates an oddly objective and unemotional experience for a story about one of the most polarizing figures of the last century. [C-]