J Edgar, the first—and probably last—pairing of director Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio, is a sloppy, drawn-out, lumbering failure. It's one of the movie year's hugest disappointments.
Most of the blame goes to Eastwood, who utilizes droning voiceovers and a washed-out visual approach that bores. The subject matter calls for something epic, but Eastwood's dreary choices make the film uncomfortably intimate and small. Eastwood shot this film quickly on a modest budget, and it shows.
The normally reliable DiCaprio is miscast. He's all wrong for a part that requires him to age almost 50 years, and the voice he employs, especially during the ponderous narration, sounds as if he is attempting his best Darth Vader impersonation.
FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was a tyrannical bastard, and as a movie character, he should explode on the screen. Billy Crudup portrayed a younger version of Hoover in Michael Mann's Public Enemies to great effect. The same can't be said for DiCaprio, although perhaps he would've done better had Eastwood allowed him to come out of the dark on occasion. He's constantly shrouded in shadows for this movie.
Written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), the film focuses on Hoover's insecurities and hypocritical behavior. There's plenty of time spent on his alleged homosexual relationship with co-worker Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film falls short of openly saying the two men were lovers, but it drops its fair share of hints, including a wrestling match culminating in a big kiss.
There is a fair amount of evidence that Hoover and Tolson were a couple. It was never admitted to by either of them, so the film doesn't have two legs to stand on when it comes to the presentation of their relationship. In other words, Eastwood has no choice but to half-ass it. Every intimate scene they have beyond holding hands is pure speculation. In the end, the film has the odd feeling of being both bold and scared of itself at the same time.
DiCaprio, looking silly in bad aging makeup, spends much of this movie in a dark room with his mother (Judi Dench). The film dwells far too much on Hoover's mother issues—so much so that when he finally puts on a dress (as the man was rumored to have done in his spare time) in a particularly strange scene, I half expected him to don a wig, grab a large knife, and go next door to kill Janet Leigh in the shower.
Eastwood also provides the soundtrack, and it's his usual, tinkling soft-jazz piano noise that does nothing but amplify the movie's lethargy. Something with a little more oomph might've given this movie some much-needed life.
This movie manages to make such historic instances as the Lindbergh kidnapping and the Kennedy assassination boring. It all floats by in a jazzy haze, with DiCaprio scowling through increasing layers of makeup. He actually looks good compared to the aging Tolson character, who seems to be the results of Hammer's projected older self copulating with a slug.
The most-intriguing moment in this film is a short one in which Richard Nixon (Christopher Shyer) reacts to Hoover's death. It is only a cameo, but Nixon's moment gives the film a much-needed jolt. It's a sad state of affairs when an appearance by Richard Nixon represents the most-vibrant moment in your film.
Naomi Watts, who is also saddled with bad aging makeup, plays Hoover's secretary and confidante, Helen Gandy. One of the film's better moments—an awkward date in a library between Hoover and Gandy—works primarily because Watts is on her game. Had the film just been about the complicated relationship these two people probably had, we might've had something, simply because Watts is such a powerful actress.
So much happened during Hoover's FBI tenure that it would be impossible to cover all of it sufficiently with one film. Therefore, it makes sense that a single film with a two-hour running time would lean more toward the man's personal and emotional struggles rather than the detailed historical events happening around him. That said, it would've been a better idea to pick an earlier period in Hoover's life to avoid the whole makeup thing. This would've given DiCaprio a fighting chance with the role, and Eastwood something on which to focus.
J. Edgar is proof that some stories are more suited to a 10-hour miniseries. The film is all over the place, accomplishing the amazing feat of making Leonardo DiCaprio look bad, and making J. Edgar Hoover look like a wounded puppy dog. He was a hard-line, unrelenting jerk by all accounts ... except for Eastwood's account. He sees Hoover as a sad, repressed boy constantly bathed in bad jazz.