Since his first directorial effort Play Misty For Me Clint Eastwood has had a successful career behind the camera (he won the Best Director Oscar for Unforgiven). Eastwood also made a name for himself playing iconic characters such as Harry Callahan; so the recognition in both directing and acting Eastwood has received makes it difficult to decide whether he was better behind or in front of the camera.
Clint Eastwood’s most recent work is based on the career of John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo Di Caprio) who rose to become the most controversial and notorious heads of the F.B.I. From a young age Hoover had looked to improve, clean up and professionalise the department, but finds this frustrating because many do not share the same protocols as he does when investigating a crime scene. Analysing Hoover’s career in the Bureau Eastwood’s film examines Hoover’s relationships with his partner, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and his mother (Judy Dench) as well as examining his mental state.
Eastwood’s film is staggeringly well acted and there is some nice period detail, but the film is let down by its inflated running time and sluggish pace. The pacing issues are caused by the fact that Eastwood does not deal with separate aspects of Hoover’s life evenly. For example Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson is rather touching as it becomes clear that Hoover respected, maybe even loved, his partner. However in contrast Hoover’s relationship with his mother lacks any true emotional involvement because Dench’s role was underwritten. At 140 odd minutes J. Edgar can be rather sluggish, but for every sluggish period there is a period where the film interestingly examines the effects of power on the mind.
Yet despite the interesting elements the film feels workmanlike and rather laboured as it stumbles along with a rather clunky script and some terrible makeup that makes Hoover look something like Charles Foster Kane in Welles’ Citizen Kane. In fairness the make up on Leonardo Di Caprio isn’t particularly bad, but on Armie Hammer it’s so poor that it is difficult to focus on anything else as it becomes rather distracting. There are interesting elements, but the film is a bit of a mess as it flashes back and forth in Hoover’s life using a confusing nonlinear narrative to tell of the events in Hoover’s career in the FBI. However the most problematic issue in Eastwood’s biopic is that the viewer, if they have little knowledge of Hoover, is unaware if he is kind-hearted or ruthless and the film also never explains why he was so controversial as he was. Yes there are elements of his hatred towards communists and black people and his illegal gathering of evidence but for one of the darkest and most polarizing men in American domestic history the film lacks some juice as Eastwood lacks a defined opinion on Hoover.
However working hard against heavy-handed, unfocused direction from Eastwood and a clumsy script from Dustin Lance Black are the superb Leonardo Di Caprio and Armie Hammer who both deliver excellent performances when playing their characters in their younger years. Di Caprio is fine in his older years, but so much make up is applied to Armie Hammer’s face when he plays the character in his older years that he can’t seem to display any emotion. Every time Hammer talks it looks like he is trying to operate a waxwork, yet however the performances are convincing enough to make the relationship the two share rather poignant as it becomes clear that two had very strong feelings for one another. The supporting performances are fine, but Naomi Watts' Helen Gandy has nothing to do but occasionally wander in the story at random intervals thus rendering her performance ineffective.
For such an interesting and controversial character the film really isn’t quite as interesting as it should be, it is true that the film tells us that he was ahead of his time with his use of science to gain evidence (using fingerprints to identify suspects), but the film does not go into great depth into why Hoover polarizes the opinions of historians. Both Di Caprio and Armie Hammer are brilliant in their respective roles but Eastwood drops in the ball in his most recent and bloated effort.