Elder Statesman
By Adam Nayman

J. Edgar
Dir. Clint Eastwood, U.S., Warner Bros.

I’m not sure if anybody has made the “Grumpy Old G-Men” joke in reviewing Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, but if not, I’d like to claim it. Watching Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer putter around in geezer makeup as the eponymous FBI director and his protégé/girl Friday Clyde Tolson, one is moved not to contemplate the inexorability of bodily decay or the tragedy of unrequited affection—to name but two of the themes attributed by other critics—but rather the squandered comic potential of an Odd Couple knock-off set in the corridors of American political power.

The film is still pretty funny by late-Eastwood standards, trailing only Gran Torino as a yuk generator. Eastwood’s supposedly wry self-deconstruction in that film—“Get off my lawn!” etc.—always struck me as a more or less straightforward exercise in icon maintenance: the fact that Dirty Harry was for once on the wrong side of the climactic hail of bullets was just a sentimental detail, signifying not a shift in the star-director’s political consciousness but rather his increased sensitivity to the cultural moment. It was essentially a pandering variation on the genuine breakthrough he achieved in Unforgiven, which, among other virtues, was a film with an actual screenplay. (No surprise that Gran Torino scribe Nick Schenk hasn’t written a thing since—perhaps he ran out of cocktail napkins).

J. Edgar also has a screenplay, by Milk’s Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black, and it’s wildly ambitious, combining elements of biography, forbidden romance, Freudian agony, wobbly camp, and Oliver Stoned cameos from Robert F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, and Charles Lindbergh. In terms of structure, Black is all over the place, pinballing between key moments in Hoover’s career (the stories are being related from the source in his dotage to his Bureau biographers), but his central idea is strong: that Hoover’s fastidious commitment secrecy was both ahead of its time and, despite its increasingly impersonal manifestations in a series of ever more elaborate filing and cataloguing systems, a direct reflection of private torment. The man who anointed himself the keeper of America’s secrets carried around his own private shame. “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son” chides Mama Hoover (Judi Dench), hitting the neatly manicured nail squarely on the head.

There’s empathy in this angle of approach, and Eastwood—whose recent growly endorsement of gay marriage in Vanity Fair seemed to come from the heart (even as he endorses Herman Cain)—rolls with it. Any critique of his subject’s unscrupulous ascendancy is submerged beneath attempts at character study. Hoover and his long-serving secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) are depicted as kindred clenched spirits: it’s no coincidence that their abortive first date revolves around locating a catalogue card listing books on the topic of “indiscretion.” The notion that Helen, who has “no plans to marry,” is herself trapped in the closet is nicely underplayed by director and actress both, and there’s power in the suggestion that Hoover’s vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr.—whom he threatens with blackmail on the eve of his accepting the Nobel Peace Prize—was rooted not in political expediency but personal resentment that the gains of the Civil Rights movement did nothing to ease the stigma of his own less visible minority.

This is provocative stuff, but unfortunately it’s also made ridiculous by its staging. Produced in the lush-yet-rushed fashion that is Eastwood’s calling card, J. Edgar compensates for its thin narrative texture with a series of overdetermined showstoppers. The shots of Hoover hunched over a tape recorder, salivating over audio of Dr. King’s extramarital dalliance while shadows intertwine on the wall, aren’t all that far from Bob Hoskins’ lip-smacking, porcine villainy in Stone’s Nixon—or, for that matter, Dr. Hibbert left sadly alone with his surreptitious sex tapes on The Simpsons. If Black means for us to laugh at this sequence, or a similar bit where Hoover and Tolson giggle girlishly over revelations of Eleanor Roosevelt’s Sapphic leanings, he’s not helped by Eastwood’s middle-of-the-road presentation, which doesn’t seem in on the joke.

And the miscalibrated comedy isn’t as bad as the unintentionally amusing drama, as when Tolson, learning of his longtime boss’s desire to take on a glamorous Hollywood beard, throws what can only be called a hissy fit—smashed wine glasses and the whole nine yards. It’s not callous viewership that makes this emotional hinge point ring false so much as disinterested direction bumping up against overcommitted acting. Suffice it to say that Hammer was on more solid actorly ground internalizing alpha-male rage in The Social Network than trying to project scalding, effeminate scorn—and Eastwood, who never met a first take he didn’t like, enshrines his star’s flailing for all time.

DiCaprio is better than Hammer in this scene and in the movie as a whole. The sense of underaged playacting that’s marked his recent roles is ironically absent in a role that actually requires a fair amount of dress-up shtick. Where Hammer gets lost in the wizened makeup (resembling nothing so much as one of the pod people in Invasion of the Body Snatchers in mid-development), DiCaprio seems to grow naturally into the role’s jowliness, and he’s got the alert eyes of a man allergic to trust. But what the hell is he supposed to do with dialogue that comes in italics like “Do I kill everything that I love?” He’s also badly undermined by Black’s final gambit, which is to recast all that we’ve seen as the work of an unreliable narrator: if Hoover is misremembering the details of his professional ascendancy and personal anguish, then aren’t all of DiCaprio’s precisely measured gestures rendered ersatz in the process?

There’s nothing in Eastwood’s funereal presentation that even hints at this kind of embedded narrative gamesmanship: it’s not a gotcha moment so much as a weary shrug. Tom Stern’s painstakingly drab cinematography and the nudging musical score are pretty obviously on the level—the level being that of a fall prestige picture—with no carefully built-in ambiguities to discover later on. Instead of forcing some deeper reckoning with what’s come before, this last twist confirms that this film about a man hell-bent on keeping up appearances is itself only superficially complex.