Clint Eastwood has been working so hard and so much, it’s easy to be bowled over that an 81-year-old has churned out nearly a film a year for over two decades (generally if he takes a year off it’s because he directed two the year previous). For his latest he’s assembled Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, and Armie Hammer for a portrait of one of the most important and powerful men of the 20th Century: J. Edgar Hoover, who developed the Federal Bureau of Investigations into the complicated and powerful organization it is now. But J. Edgar is sadly undercooked, with all the juicy tales of Hoover and none congealing.

The Players:

The Plot:

Through the framework of J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) dictating his autobiography, the film moves from Hoover’s childhood and interest in the protection of people from communism, to his glory years where he developed the Bureau of Investigation into a powerhouse – especially after the Lindbergh baby kidnapping case – and then his later years, where he butted heads with the Kennedys over organized crime, and thought Martin Luther King was a communist. The most important people in his life seem to be his mother (Dench), his secretary Helen Gandy (Watts) and Clyde Tolson (Hammer), his second in command and rumored lover.

The Good:

  • On Time and Under Budget: Credit to James Rocchi for that saying, but when it comes to a Clint Eastwood film, that seems to be one of the things that is likeable about it. And Eastwood has a great craft, and there’s no faulting the design or quality of the film itself. It’s handsomely put together, and everyone seems to know what they’re doing.

The Bad:

  • The Script: It may seem dangerous to come to a thesis when making a film like this, but with so many details of interest in Hoover’s story, you wait for the film to at least make you feel you have an understanding of Hoover, and not just a collection of his greatest hits. The film mentions that in the 1960′s, Hoover thought organized crime didn’t exist, and was more worried about the threat of communism. That’s fascinating and could serve for a great chapter on the man’s life, and yet it’s a sentence in the film. And there are too many sentences and moments that should resonate stronger. Hoover ultimately became dangerous through his organization, but what he did that was bad in the 60′s and 70′s – other than spying on Presidents to keep his job – is backgrounded and the film doesn’t seem to implicate him in the deaths of any of the famous figures at the time. It does a better job of showing him as petty, but never really showcases what made him terrible. Perhaps the film expects us to realize he’s evil, but as a generation has been raised on CSI, that Hoover used scientists and fingerprints to find criminals is appealing. Does the film want to be a balanced portrait of Hoover’s legacy, or is that just what happens when you make a film that is more assemblage of facts than narrative? And the way the film deals with the allegations of homosexuality and cross dressing are laughable, but more damningly don’t really connect to the film at hand. You could snip the two biggest dramatic scenes that relate to those allegations and the film wouldn’t be changed.
  • Homosexuality: Perhaps that’s why Dustin Lance Black was hired on to write this as he won an Oscar for penning Milk, but his work here needed another draft to make a story out of these elements. The homosexual angle on Hoover would be fascinating if it tied into his work a little more, but the film doesn’t make a case that repression relates to the work, or his later years. This is also bungled when it comes to Naomi Watts’s character, who’s got some of the best moments in the film early on when Hoover is trying to date her, but her character quickly falls into being a secretary and so she dutifully shows up every twenty or thirty minutes in old age make-up to remind you she’s in the film. Cinema has often punished closeted men for being such, and it’s understandable that Black wouldn’t want to turn Hoover into another closet freak, but he’s a freak anyway. And if Hoover was a good lawman ruined by his desire to catch people in scandal, so too is J. Edgar ruined by it’s failure to tie his sexuality into his work.
  • The Direction: Again, this is undercooked and that’s got to lay at the feet of Eastwood. Though some blanch at the use of the phrase “Oscar Bait,” this team was more assembled and project has the air of “this is a good topic.” I think everyone wanted to work together, but the end results suggest the sort of film that’s not a passion project – comparing this to Bird or White Hunter, Black Heart, and J. Edgar looks undernourished and confused. And though Eastwood’s work has declined in some ways over the years (there are few cheerleaders for Invictus or Hereafter), this appears to be his sloppiest in a long, long time – if those films are less good, with moments of Eastwood’s gift, little here has any charm or resonance. The material doesn’t grip him, and though Eastwood’s got a sure hand, he doesn’t have a three act structure to fall back on so it’s mostly a collage of scenes. Great art often expects you to meet it half way, but films like this expect audiences to do all the heavy lifting. There’s a difference.
  • Mommy: I wish the character Judi Dench plays had weight, but perhaps it’s because Eastwood doesn’t excel at camp. That’s a strongpoint when navigating tricky material, but when you eventually put Hoover in a dress for one scene, you could see how that might work if the film was done in the spirit of Mommy Dearest. Here, you just cringe for everyone involved.

Overall:

Bad movies aren’t always the ones that are incompetent, sometimes the worst films are the ones that frustrate. There is so much potential for the material in J. Edgar, but the film that was made feels rushed and pointless. Sometimes great people don’t make for great films, but this film is beneath everyone involved.

Rating: 2.5/10

J. Edgar opens wide November 11.

Trailer:

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