Clint Eastwood has done the impossible: he's made me feel bad for J. Edgar Hoover. No one deserves to have this bad a bio-pic as their cinematic gravestone.
J. Edgar is directed by Eastwood (who won Oscars for Unforgiven and Million Dollar Baby), and written by Dustin Lance Black (the Oscar-winning writer of Milk), and it is hard to determine which man deserves the lion's share of the blame for this turgid and tedious mess. Featuring a ridiculously miscast Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role, a shallow, subtlety-deaf screenplay that wants to be Brokeback Bureau, and a clanking directorial style that feels like a color-blind Douglas Sirk helming an episode of Dragnet, J. Edgar is just laughably, appallingly bad.
And it's a shame. There are arguably few men who better defined America in the 20th century—for better or worse—than FBI director J. Edgar Hoover. Hoover joined the Bureau under Woodrow Wilson, and served as its director under Calvin Coolidge and the next seven presidents, from 1921 to until his death in 1972. Hoover revolutionized law enforcement in this country, and in the process maintained a stranglehold on power through blackmail, extortion, and unprecedented civil rights violations. He was also, reportedly, gay—by inclination, if not by admission—and thus a fascinating, conflicted, and thematically rich subject for a serious, intelligent motion picture biography.
I sincerely hope someone, someday, makes such a film about Hoover, because J. Edgar is absolute crap. Clocking in at an interminable 137 minutes, and yet somehow still barely scratching the surface of its subject, J. Edgar approaches this extraordinary life through the eyes of the man himself. The film is structured—or, more accurately, unstructured—around Hoover dictating his memoirs to a series of junior FBI agents, a device that does the film no favors by jumping backwards and forwards in time seemingly at random, allowing the viewer no firm grasp on the scope or scale of the history being recounted. The movie simply pops in and out of moments in Hoover's career, and—with the exception of the Lindbergh kidnapping case, which is returned to so often that one suspects it interested Eastwood and Black more than their supposed protagonist—none receive more than a passing mention. Neither Hoover's considerable achievements nor his considerable crimes are done justice by this treatment. (Towards the end of the film, one character reminds us that what we've seen is just Hoover's self-aggrandizing version of history—an assertion that is meant to paper over the film's countless flaws, but which serves only to remind us how shallow and meaningless a version it is.)
The film takes a similarly glancing approach to Hoover's personal life, particularly his relationship with his number-two man (and longtime companion) Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Hammer—so good as "the Winklevii" in last year's The Social Network, is saddled here with an impossible role as Hoover's dandified, silently adoring other half. Hammer approaches the otherwise undefined role by simply "playing gay"—in the broadest and least honorable way—and brings no depth or pathos to his criminally underwritten character. Neither the script nor Hammer provides any insight into why Tolson adores Hoover so, or anything else about their relationship, really: the film tiptoes daintily around the subject for most of the film, never bothering to speculate about the motives and emotions involved and never daring to assert anything one way or another.
The two men have exactly one emotional scene together, and it's an absolute train-wreck: a shouting fist-fight—followed by a first (and last?) kiss—that manages to be both laughably over-the-top and ridiculously noncommittal. Hoover's sexuality—or lack thereof—is explained as a stereotypical reaction to a dominating mother (Judi Dench), who senses her son's difference and tells him she "would rather have a dead son than a daffodil." (Hoover's rumored transvestism is similarly dismissed in a single scene in which, grief-stricken at his mother's death, he tries on her dress and pearls: the scene strives for tragedy and yet I challenge anyone not to laugh aloud.)
It's one thing to make a film about homosexuality set in a repressive and homophobic era: it's another thing altogether to make a film that feels like it itself belongs to that era. J. Edgar is the latter, and it is staggering to see the subject treated with such insensitivity and lack of insight in 2011. Here, again, the blame must be equally apportioned to all concerned: Black's screenplay does not really explore this complicated relationship, and Eastwood's ham-fisted, tone-deaf direction leaves the actors no space in which to introduce any nuance or subtext. Hammer and DiCaprio—both woefully miscast—have no chemistry, and it doesn't help that their absurdly boyish faces are increasingly caked by clumsy, mashed-potato makeup in a desperate (and painfully unsuccessful) attempt to make them believable as the older versions of their characters.
Everything about this film is execrable, from the treacly soundtrack, to the murky cinematography, to the horribly failed impersonations of various famous figures: the entire film is about as competent and convincing as the longest junior-high-school stage production you've ever sat through. (In the entire cast, only Naomi Watts manages to salvage any dignity, in the thankless role of Ms. Gandy, Hoover's longtime secretary.) The collected talents of everyone involved—particularly Eastwood—are all well-respected enough that I have seen J. Edgar kindly judged a "misfire" in other negative reviews, but trust me, that's an understatement. Time will not be kind to this movie: already a shamefully regressive throwback, J. Edgar will be remembered—if it is remembered at all—as one of the true turkeys of the early 21st century.