Dir. Clint Eastwood
(2011, R, 137 min)

J. Edgar is an informative film about the growth of the Federal Bureau of Investigation under the leadership of J. Edgar Hoover, but it’s more instructive than passionate. In the last decade, director Clint Eastwood has made reflective, expressive films like Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima with a minimalist style whose economy brought out the power of his subjects; his still waters run deep. With J. Edgar, though he retains the somberness and desaturated tones of his previous work, he doesn’t capture the same intimacy. His characters don’t draw us in as fully, and his more emotional scenes feel as though they’re trying too hard.

He’s held back in part by Dustin Lance Black‘s screenplay, which employs a well-worn device to tell its story: having J. Edgar tell it himself. The FBI director, late in life, dictates an autobiography of sorts – or a history of the bureau, or a little bit of both – to agents who, I’m guessing, didn’t sign up to be Hoover’s typist. There are details in his interactions with these agents, subtly observed, that are more interesting than most of the stories he tells them. We notice, for instance, that the agents are invariably handsome, dark-haired young men, similar to another important man in his life who is introduced to us later in the film. We also notice a high rate of turnover; Hoover is miserly with his trust and even less generous with second chances, and when one agent makes a gaffe – a minor word or gesture that rankles the director – he’s traded in for another. This, we recognize, is a crucial survival mechanism for Hoover, who is quick to identify and eliminate threats, and in making those decisions chemistry often matters more than qualification.

Armie Hammer, as Clyde Tolson

As he tells his story, it’s dramatized for us in flashbacks. From past to present, the film spans roughly half a century, and three actors play their roles in all time periods: Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, Armie Hammer as his handsome, dark-haired second in command Clyde Tolson, and Naomi Watts as Hoover’s life-long secretary Helen Gandy. Their advancing age is conveyed through makeup, always a tricky thing in movies, especially serious ones like this. At first, the effect is distracting to the point of silliness; DiCaprio and Hammer, especially, don’t look like old men but young men in latex cocoons. The longer we see them, the less preoccupied we are with the effects and the more we’re able to appreciate the performances underneath – especially from Hammer, who brings a quiet longing and regret to Clyde in his later years – but we never forget that we’re watching famous actors in prosthetics, and that’s a problem.

The history lessons aren’t interesting in and of itself. Hoover remembers the rise of organized crime, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and interactions with famous politicians played by actors doing self-conscious impressions; it’s not the actors’ fault, I don’t think; it might be impossible to play Robert Kennedy or Richard Nixon in a cameo role without the mannerisms overshadowing the man. More interesting is the suggestion later on that Hoover is not a reliable narrator of his own life story, but this idea isn’t taken full advantage of. It might have deepened our understanding of the man to watch the clash between his self-image and his reality develop throughout the film instead of simply being referenced later.

When the story turns towards the personal, Eastwood and Black often overplay their hand. Hoover’s sexuality is of central importance, and the build-up of his relationship with Tolson is at once coy and obvious; the film clearly portrays them as lovers in every aspect but sex – Hoover is too repressed, but Tolson is too loyal to stray – yet it dances around the subject until a fight between the two erupts with grandiose soap-opera theatrics. Were that not blatant enough, Black adds a scene between Hoover and his domineering mother (Judi Dench), who warns him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” Other dialogue is similarly on-the-nose, as when a distraught Hoover resorts to the cliché, “Do I kill everything I touch?”

J. Edgar is neither a successful film nor a thudding failure. It is hurt mostly by its own expectations. Eastwood is a four-time Oscar winner, his cast has amassed multiple nominations, and his writer won for penning another film about a gay historical figure (Milk), so this film, on paper, should have been a sure thing. In 2009, Eastwood directed another film with an impressive pedigree and similar historical import, Invictus. This is a markedly better film than Invictus, so there’s that, though not a film Eastwood is likely to be remembered for.