Although his standing as one of cinema’s great icons will never be challenged, Clint Eastwood has surely evolved into one of the drabbest, stagiest, and most emotionally disconnected directors in Hollywood. Like Hereafter before it, J. Edgar is cast in a pall of greys and off-greys, and populated exclusively by characters who exist only when there is a camera trained upon them. The notoriously fast-working filmmaker – Eastwood favours only one or two takes – strands his talented cast in bad makeup, worse accents, and with clumsy dialogue courtesy of Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black. Throughout it all is his plinkly piano score, which isn’t so much a signature of his craftsmanship these days as it is a harbinger of stilted line readings and telemovie-esque melodrama. Pretty though. The only thing in the film that is.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, the first director of the FBI, from his thirties up until his death at age 77. During his 40-odd year tenure, Hoover established the Bureau as a force to be reckoned with, thanks to his insistence on the preservation of crime scenes, the scientific analysis of evidence, and the then totally-cuckoo concept of cataloguing fingerprints. When we first meet him at a septuagenarian, he’s dictating his life story to a young agent (Ed Westwick – Chuck Bass!) for an upcoming autobiography. He’s also caked in old age makeup that recalls Biff Tannen in Back to the Future 2 (in fact, as the decades pass and the wrinkles increase exponentially, the entire supporting cast begins to resemble Biff; even Naomi Watts).
Hoover, his loyal assistant Helen Gandy (Watts, who becomes a nonentity in the story mere moments after her introduction) and associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, we hoped for a better follow-up to The Social Network than this), make their mark while investigating the ‘Crime of the Century': the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Over the years, as part of his unending pursuit of public adulation and unparalleled power, Hoover wades into murky waters and digs for dirt on Eleanor Roosevelt, Martin Luther King, and John F. Kennedy. These inquiries take a backseat in Eastwood and Black’s tale, however, to Hoover’s clandestine romantic relationship with Tolson, and how the expectations of his cruel, determined mother (Judi Dench) came to distort his perception of right and wrong.
If the above reads less like a concise synopsis of a film’s plot and more like a general synopsis of Hoover’s life, that’s because the film doesn’t really have a narrative to hang its fedora on. J. Edgar is a compression of events, both real and imagined, expressed with no rhyme or reason across a wildly oscillating timeline. We jump back and forth – no, you never get used to seeing DiCaprio and especially Hammer wearing their bizarre, old-man skin suits – and wind up drowning in a sea of extraneous characters and listless conflict. Though Black’s Milk had an almost identical framing device – our eponymous hero recalls his life story for the public record – that film had verve, wit, and vibrancy (and shape). Perhaps a funereal tone is best suited to Hoover’s tale, but that self-seriousness certainly doesn’t do all the silly dialogue any favours.
All intriguing elements of Hoover’s life – including, but not limited to, his secret relationship with Tolson, the way in which his obsessions helped to define American paranoia for the next century (and beyond), and his long-rumoured predilection for wearing women’s clothes – are given fleeting, cursory nods. As such, we’re only privy to a glimpse of the real man (the one sequence that examines the cross-dressing is perhaps the only sensitive and subtle moment in the entire piece). DiCaprio and Hammer work hard, but under Eastwood’s half-hearted direction they merely seem like teenagers – wearing their father’s suits, and with talcum powder salt-and-peppering their hair – out of their depth on a high school stage. During a pivotal fight between the two, Eastwood forgives a shot in which the camera is bumped. For a film about a persnickety detective, this thing feels very rushed.
J. Edgar arrives in Australian cinemas January 26, 2012.