Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar goes wrong in just about every way that a biopic can go wrong. It's poorly written, directed and casted, it's as tedious as it is unimaginative and it's too long by at least a half hour.
Just about all of its choices are poor ones, it has next to no insights about its subject or the historical events depicted and worst of all, it's boring. A movie about one of the towering and controversial figures of 20th century America shouldn't be boring.
A look at the life of J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), the director of the FBI for five decades, the film slogs through various major events of the 20th century, from the Palmer Raids to the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to the Kennedy assassination.
Through it all, Hoover is accompanied by his long-suffering secretary (Naomi Watts) and his assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) who may or may not have been his lover. I say "may or may not" because the film never actually gets around to establishing whether they were actually sexual partners.
This is far from Eastwood's finest hour as director.
He and cinematographer Tom Stern give the film an attractive, pseudo-black-and-white look, but from a storytelling standpoint J. Edgar is a failure in just about every way.
The story is told through a framing device in which an elderly Hoover is telling stories from his past for the purposes of a memoir, so we get the actors as their normal selves in the 1930s scenes, but in the 1960s, they're hidden by layers of unconvincing old-age makeup.
DiCaprio doesn't look THAT bad, but I never for a second stopped realizing that I was watching Leonardo DiCaprio made up as an old man. Watts is somewhat less convincing, but Hammer, as the older Tolson, looks like no human being I've ever seen. The film would have probably worked better had they hired other actors to play the older versions. Why not Jon Voight as the elderly Hoover? DiCaprio with makeup looks almost exactly like him anyway. (None of those, though, are the worst makeup choice in the movie – Hoover's father, in an early scene, is for some reason made to look like a zombie.)
Despite that, I fully expect J. Edgar to be nominated for, and probably win, the Oscar for best makeup.
The framing device also fails because the film keeps forgetting about it, and because it can't keep its story straight. Among other chronological howlers, the film places Martin Luther King Jr.'s "I Have a Dream" speech after the JFK assassination. The film's time isn't well-apportioned, either – It devotes a full half hour to the Lindbergh kidnapping, yet the entire Johnson Administration is reduced to a minute-long montage.
But even worse, the film just plain has nothing to say about anything.
Hoover's motivations are attributed entirely to the usual Pop Psych 101 crutches: a combination of mommy issues and the repression of the closet. The various political and social struggles of the 20th century are depicted, but the film adds no insight or commentary on any of it.
Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black won an Oscar for writing Milk, probably the best movie ever made about a gay political figure, and now he's written one of the worst. He'll have to write a Barney Frank biopic, or something, in order to break the tie.
The Silver Screen Rating: 1.5 stars (out of 5)
Roll Credits: J. Edgar
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
Length: 2 hour, 17 mins.