Whatever your opinion on J. Edgar Hoover is - unwavering patriot, paranoid witch-hunter, a bit of both... - the man is undeniably one of the most fascinating figures in American history. With such rich material to mine from, one would think that a film maker like Clint Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his look at Harvey Milk in Milk) would be able to create a film as fascinating as its subject. Unfortunately, that's not quite the case. Eastwood's directorial career, recently in a bit of a funk, doesn't get the reinvigoration it so desperately needs from J. Edgar. It's not a horrible film, just a terribly simple and unremarkable one.
Of any film this fall, J. Edgar certainly screams "Oscar bait" the loudest. Biopic of famous American figure? Check. Period piece? Check. Simplistic framing device? Check. Old age makeup, some of it absolutely awful (poor Armie Hammer)? Check. Judi Dench? Check. All of these are part of the film. The problem is that Eastwood seems to simply stop there. He's made (and Black has written) an Oscar contender that feels lazy. The film may cover nearly seven decades, but even with all of that time, it never amounts to much more than a safe and shallow examination of its central subject. Black and Eastwood never take any sort of stance on Hoover as a man. True, they've avoided making a lopsided cartoon of Hoover, but they've also failed to have any sort of opinion on him at all.
It's a shame, because poor Leonardo DiCaprio really is trying his hardest here, even having to fighting against some odd old age makeup that gives him awkward-looking jowls. It's a committed performance, and DiCaprio totally sells it. Unfortunately, there isn't enough for him to sell, even with the script's hints at Hoover's closeted sexuality and mommy issues. No one else fares well either, if only because the film isn't as interested in any of the characters as it is in Hoover. Armie Hammer tries his best as Clyde Tolson, Hoover's right-hand man and rumored lover, though the character is ultimately little more than an oversimplified foil to Hoover. Judi Dench pops in for a few scenes as Hoover's mother and brings her usual credibility without doing much more save for one scene that links Hoover's mommy issues with his sexuality. The most unfortunate, though, is Naomi Watts as Hoover's lifelong secretary Helen Gandy. To be brief, it's almost criminal how basic the character is considering the remarkable actress playing her on screen.
And it's this precise lack of anything remarkable that leaves J. Edgar feeling so middling. Though certain memories, such as those surrounding the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, are interesting, there's never enough of a look into Hoover's thought process to explain his increasingly paranoid tendencies. As such, the film has some strong scenes, but never rises to become a fully compelling examination. The closest it comes is in a moment after Hoover's mother dies, but given how safe the film is in dealing with that angle, it amounts to little in the long run. Considering all of the ways Hoover was involved in Washington's inner-workings, it's amazing how tame some of the "surprises" of the story feel.
The film is also brought down by the ho-hum look of everything, by which I mean the fact that every frame seems to be filled with nothing but shades of grey and green. I'm not sure why Eastwood has recently become fond of this washed-out look, but he needs to get over it, and soon. I can at least say that for once Eastwood's score contributions (extremely limited this time around) are either effective or aren't noticeable. I'd comment about the production design and costumes, but with everything so drained of color it's hard to evaluate (or care about). Then again, maybe the lighting and coloring of the film actually works, because it embodies the film as a whole: so safe that it feels drained of any life or vivacity that would have made it as fascinating as Hoover himself.