Silver Screen: J. Edgar **
You're probably supposed to like J. Edgar. It's a film by an acclaimed director and an award-winning writer about one of the most influential people in American history, a story tangled up with decades of the country's greatest achievements and darkest secrets. It stars renowned actors, covers decades, and is shot in a bleached-out, colorless palate that suggests both the sepia tone of history and the gray dimness of people working in dark little rooms on clandestine endeavors. It's also one of the most goddamn boring things I've ever sat through.
You don't watch J. Edgar, you endure it as though it were an obligation, like visiting a distant, long-senile relative on Thanksgiving, or as if eating a bowl of Grape Nuts. Anything this tedious, humorless, colorless, and dry must be good for you, right?
J. Edgar is nothing more than a standard-issue biopic that delivers a survey course on history that is no more insightful than scanning a Wikipedia page, except that it doesn't take two hours and fifteen minutes to read a Wikipedia page. Director Clint Eastwood, working off a deadly dull script from the generally talented Dustin Lance Black (Milk), is so eager to hit the various high points of Hoover's career that he neglects to pause and give any of them substance. A few interactions suggest something more interesting-- Hoover's duel of wits with Bobby Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan, from TV’s Burn Notice), his close supervision of the Lindberg-baby kidnapping investigation-- but they never receive the necessary time or attention to amount to much more than droll historical reenactments.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays two J. Edgar Hoovers, one a young, up-and-coming government agent who uses his skills as an organizer and master manipulator to create and run the Federal Bureau of Investigation, strengthening the influence of federal law enforcement exponentially; the other withered by age and disappointment, winding down the final days of his career and dictating his memoirs to a series of studious underlings.
It's a massive mistake to have DiCaprio in the old-man makeup from the start. The effect is decent, but viewers know what DiCaprio is supposed to look like, so from the start his character feels artificial. He's an exceptionally talented performer, but he's so youthful and charismatic that it's nearly impossible to buy his cranky-geezer schtick even when he's selling it well. Had viewers gradually seen him age it might have been a smoother transition, but the contrast between him dictating the memoir and the flashbacks to early career action provide an unfortunate contrast. (In fairness, DiCaprio pulls off the old-person makeup better than anyone else; Naomi Watts is an obviously frumpified hot chick, and Armie Hammer looks absolutely absurd.)
The plotline goes deep into Oliver Stone's turf, providing a kind of conspiratorial-psychoanalytic solution to the implied question, “Who is the real J. Edgar Hoover?” According to Black and Eastwood, he was a fearful and cowed mama's boy, dominated by a mercurial and utterly loathsome matriarch (Judi Dench), which only aggravated his guilt and confusion over his budding homosexuality. The latter issues he works out, or rather doesn't exactly work out, during a long and strained relationship with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Hammer, a very good young actor), who the movie claims was his longtime companion. Maybe all of this is one-hundred percent true, but Eastwood and Black make it feel like a contrivance either way.
Eastwood and Black never answer the fundamental question: Why watch this instead of a History Channel documentary? Their dramatization is never dramatic, the staging is stiff, and the aims vague. Despite the enduring relevance of Hoover's legacy with regard to secrets and government intervention, the film never smartly connects the events of his era with those of today.
The film is best summed up by an early scene in which Hoover takes a young woman on a date. The girl in question, played by Watts, will go on to be his personal assistant for the remainder of his life. It's quite possibly the worst first date ever, as he drags her into the Library of Congress to show off his innovative card-catalogue system. Is it objectively impressive? Sure. Is she at all engaged or interested? Absolutely not.
Follow Bryan Miller on Twitter@bmillercomedy.