Clint Eastwood’s latest Oscar grab bag, J. Edgar, is proof positive of how a bad screenplay can sink even the sturdiest of ships.
Aimlessly leap-frogging around a fifty year time span covering the entire career of FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, delivering a workmanlike performance), Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay utilizes the clichéd framework of the title character dictating his memoirs. In an attempt to cover so much 20th century history, the story touches on so many things that it ends up enlightening nothing. Half-hearted efforts to give us glimpses into Hoover’s psyche and background (Surprise! He had a domineering mother represented by a phoned-in performance from Judi Dench) shed little light on the rumors that have always been out there. Was he a closeted homosexual? Probably. Was he a cross-dresser? Probably not. The film tries to anchor itself around his relationships with Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer – almost comical in his depiction) and his long-suffering secretary Helen Gandy (played admirably by the long-suffering Naomi Watts who seems to always get these thankless supporting gigs in high-profile disappointments) – but neither are treated in any kind of sophisticated way and we’re left with surface-level treatments of these characters who obviously (in their own different ways) loved and were ruled by Hoover.
I’ve been a bit more reluctant than others to call for Eastwood to be put out to pasture. I found, though heavily flawed, his Changeling, Invictus and Hereafter to be more compelling than the general consensus and Gran Torino showed he’s still capable of being a flippant populist. But it’s clear that since Letters from Iwo Jima, he’s been on a precipitous decline, and there’s almost nothing of great interest in J. Edgar beyond DiCaprio’s solid performance. Eastwood does what he can here with the scatter-shot script that bounces all over the place with no clear focus, but his usual bag of tired tricks (poor lighting, his one-note score, slack editing) doesn’t help the proceedings. The production design and attention to detail are nice, and the aging make-up (with the exception of Arnie Hammer’s) isn’t nearly as bad as some proclaim and I found to be actually quite good in the case of DiCaprio and Watts.
There are nuggets of some greater story here – vague ideas around how a man can define an institution and vice versa or the dangers of a government spying on its own citizens – but they’re washed out in Black’s screenplay that at one point foolishly paints Hoover and Tolson as a bunch of gossipy homosexuals who are more concerned with spying as entertainment than as crime prevention – a gross stereotype coming from the man who wrote the Oscar-Winning script for Milk.
In the hands of a savvier or most risk-taking auteur, we could’ve at least had a more entertaining movie that took one side or another – painting Hoover either as a misunderstood (perhaps tragic) hero who changed the nation through his revolutionary ideas on fighting crime or as a paranoid egomaniac who projected his own self-loathing and denial on those he spied upon – but instead we are left with a luke-warm TV-movie style affair that trys to take the middle road and renders everything banal resulting in more questions than answers.
The biggest question I left with was around how eerily Hillary Clinton-like Naomi Watts looked in her aging make-up. Perhaps twenty years from now Watts can headline her own Oscar-bait biopic. Let’s just hope Dustin Lance Black doesn’t write the screenplay.