At 81, director Clint Eastwood seems to make each new movie with the gusto of a guy who wants to go out on a high note. Forget winning Oscars -- with "Gran Torino," "Invictus," "Hereafter" and now "J. Edgar," his primary goal would appear to be putting together big, sweeping, emotional films that feel like Major Statements. He acts as if every film might be his last, so he'd better make it count and make it important. Unfortunately, "J. Edgar" bears all the same strengths and weaknesses as his recent work. There is much to admire, and there is much that makes you shake your head.
The movie stars Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial head of the FBI as an old man in the late '60s and early '70s looking back on his career. Hoover is writing his memoirs, and the film traces back to the pivotal moments in the man's life, which include his investigation into the abduction of Charles Lindbergh's son and his tentative love affair with his second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
With its backwards-looking structure, "J. Edgar" clearly wants to evoke a similar technique used in "Citizen Kane," another story about a powerful man undone by demons and an irreparable void in his heart. Additionally, Eastwood and "Milk" screenwriter Dustin Lance Black seem to be taking a page from Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which tried to humanize a president many consider monstrous. These are grand, bold movies that "J. Edgar" calls to mind, but in keeping with Eastwood's style his film works on a large canvas but with a restrained tone. Even what could have been the film's most colorful elements -- Hoover's homosexuality and his cross-dressing -- are treated with a respectful tactfulness so as to judge this individual from a dispassionate, objective distance.
DiCaprio has played this sort of mythic American figure before in Martin Scorsese's "The Aviator," and in both cases his enduring manchild features -- even though he's about to turn 37 -- work to the benefit of the character, even while it deprives him of some gravitas and authority. What happens instead is that because DiCaprio looks too young to be such a towering presence -- not literally, since Hoover was a short man -- there's always an element of boyish insecurity that cuts through Hoover's every action, an important character detail in a movie about a self-conscious man constantly trying to prove himself to others.
Because of Eastwood's quick, no-nonsense shooting style, he's able to churn out movies at a much higher rate than his peers (especially at his age), but of late that approach has led to a predisposition toward on-the-nose dialogue and plots that can feel a little rushed or not entirely thought-through. While not fatal, both of these problems hamper "J. Edgar," which beyond being just a simple biopic also wants to be a commentary on how men in power can easily abuse their authority in the name of national security. "J. Edgar" ripples with post-9/11 commentary, and while some of it is rather obvious, the movie works best when it shows how Hoover's obsession with capturing lawbreakers began as a diligent, inventive emphasis on forensic science that was revolutionary in crime-fighting. Eastwood and DiCaprio do a good job of making that our entry point into the rising young man's essence, which makes his later fixation on Communists and Martin Luther King, Jr. all the more troubling for the audience.
But despite its strong central performance and thematic concerns, "J. Edgar" is yet another recent Eastwood effort that aspires to great things but shortchanges itself with nagging problems that seem to be the result of the director's don't-fuss-over-everything style. The most obvious is the film's heavy makeup work for DiCaprio, Hammer and (as Hoover's longtime secretary) Naomi Watts in their old age. I don't find the actors' twilight-years look utterly embarrassing, but it is maddeningly inconsistent in its believability. Even worse, Hoover's later years are a major part of "J. Edgar," so it's not something that you can easily forget in the course of a two-hour-plus movie.
But the small but obvious deficiencies don't end there. "J. Edgar" seems to want to cast Hoover as a tragic figure undone by his ambition -- which meant becoming more tyrannical in his job, repressing his homosexuality and keeping the adoring Tolson at bay -- but the filmmakers don't have many particularly novel ways of telling a familiar fall-from-grace story. Judi Dench is despicably good as Hoover's judgmental, status-conscious mother, and Hammer gives a gallant, heartbreaking performance as a man who only wants to love Hoover, but the movie's exploration of the folly of power and fame don't add up to a lot. I'm very torn by "J. Edgar." Its themes and its cool, calm confidence are quietly appealing -- which only makes its messier margins and unfocused ideas all the more frustrating. From the early reviews, it's clear that many of my colleagues have had it with Eastwood's solemn, self-important style. I've never been an Eastwood apostle -- I've always found him a bit too stodgy and sentimental, even in his "Million Dollar Baby" days -- so his supposedly weaker recent films have hardly felt like a betrayal. To be honest, I've always thought he was a bit overrated. It's funny: Now that so many others have turned on him, by comparison I'm suddenly the guy who thinks he's a bit underappreciated.