**½/**** Image A- Sound A Extras C-
starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench
screenplay by Dustin Lance Black
directed by Clint Eastwood
by Angelo Muredda To say that latter-day Clint Eastwood is an acquired taste seems slightly inaccurate, in that it implies a certain consistency on both the filmmaker's and the viewer's part: while even Invictus and the "Touched by an Angel" outtake Hereafter have their fans, you don't find many of them championing, say, the delirious Europop ballads that punctuate the former. ("And it's not just a game/They can't throw me away/I put all I had on the line," sings a mysterious crooner whose song is played in toto as Mandela descends his helicopter and paces the rugby field.) So let's propose instead that the master of sepia's recent output has been rather like a series of inkblots, in which perfectly smart people have seen completely different things. Some, for instance, find much to admire in the simultaneously milquetoast and monstrous Million Dollar Baby, which I've always read as Eastwood's last laugh at disability-rights activists for a failed lawsuit involving an inaccessible inn he ran years prior; others dismiss Gran Torino, his most watchable film since Unforgiven, as a rare spot of trash. All of this is to say, rather sheepishly, that I kind of liked fusty old J. Edgar, even as I recognized it as a train-wreck throughout. People have been very kind to Eastwood in this restless period, calling his choice of projects as disparate as Changeling and Letters from Iwo Jima "varied," but it's only with J. Edgar that I've understood their spirit of generosity: It's such a chameleonic grab-bag of ideas, good and bad, that some of it can't help but appeal, regardless of whether the entire thing works. (It doesn't.)
Both the film's problems and its perks stem from Dustin Lance Black's bewildering screenplay. While the subject might seem a wild stretch from the Oscar-winning author of Milk, J. Edgar eventually reveals itself as Black's second reckoning with an ambitious and mercurial LGBT forefather--this time the titular closeted director of the FBI, embodied to the best of his abilities (with some questionable help from a slew of vindictive makeup artists) by Leonardo DiCaprio. I've no doubt that these are but the first two instalments in a "queer men in high places" trilogy, and it's precisely this historical bent that alternately fascinates and bores. First, the boring: the framing device sees a ragged-looking Hoover--Edgar only to his mother Annie (Judi Dench) and life partner Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)--dictating his memoirs to a procession of interns, when he's not shuffling off his private files to trusted personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, surprisingly convincing as a matron). The near-unwatchable first hour hews closely to this dull conceit, indiscriminately walking us through the formation of the Bureau and consequent railroading of radical Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht, one-note), early encounters with RFK (Jeffrey Donovan, reduced at one point to shouting "Hoovah!" into a phone), and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. Much of this Wiki-history feels like a barely dramatized miniseries for public television, with spotty accents and flat, declarative dialogue like "It was 1919," and, "But the crimes we're investigating aren't crimes--they're ideas." It's material that would be right at home in The Conspirator, Robert Redford's recent moth-eaten approach to American political history, and Eastwood's usual aesthetic--minimalist at best, and arguably just lazy--of desaturated colours, lingering shadows, and unfussy medium shots only further saps this already lifeless material.
But as Black's script pushes into less textbook territory, so, thankfully, does Eastwood. The director prides himself on his commitment to shooting scripts as written, to the horror of screenwriters like Peter Morgan, who has all but disowned Hereafter, evidently based on his first draft. Nonetheless, in J. Edgar's case, this earnest and, again, possibly lazy adherence to the text pays off as the stiff, high-school pageantry of the first act gives way to the more enjoyably unhinged Hoover fanfic that Black increasingly devises. Some of this is odd stuff: I won't soon forget the image of a decrepit Hoover shrouded in darkness and huddled over a secret recording of a Martin Luther King Jr. sex tape, which his guilt-ridden puritan brain projects onto the wall in shadow puppets. (Credit must go to long-time DP Tom Stern for making this tableau at least as lyrical as it is ridiculous.) The Lindbergh episode, which starts as the worst of the film's longwinded and scattershot depiction of history, segues nicely into a schlocky police thriller--an early "X File," with young Edgar as Mulder. Usually irony-averse, Eastwood is surprisingly deft at keeping us guessing as to whether such heroics are unembellished or filtered through a crackpot messiah's late-life delusions.
All of this is diverting enough, but it's the film's depiction of Hoover's lifelong partnership with Tolson that's most affecting--and most unexpected, given Eastwood's usual prudishness. Hammer, so good as a pair of imperious wankers in The Social Network, has his work cut out for him here: much of the time, he's buried under a horrendous mound of latex that renders him a zombie Craig T. Nelson. Good on him, then, for investing his dandy Tin Man with a heart. Hammer's Tolson comes off at first as a living doll, a tall homme fatale Edgar spots across the room in his finely-cut suit. His transparency--"I've never been to the horse races!" he says, sincerely--brings out the best in Edgar, who's reduced in his presence to boyish expressions of admiration; it's nice to see DiCaprio in this honeymoon phase, enjoying a brief respite from his usual tortured widowerhood. This conjectural but by some accounts accurate depiction of their relationship, which grows over time from backslapping prep-school love to something like marriage, stands out as a gem rescued from the historical dustbin that Black is initially all too happy to simply bury his head in. In the end, though, this is a big-budget, speculative work of queer historiography, and while Eastwood's undiscerning stewardship dramatizes some truly clunky material for far too long, there's something admirable in how he stays the course, following Black into the movie he clearly wanted to make all along.
THE BLU-RAY DISC
by Bill Chambers Check out this image of Naomi Watts in costume from the featurette on Warner's Blu-ray release of J. Edgar. Why would you want to light and photograph her like a vampire? Alas, J. Edgar is another velvet painting from America's King of Darkness, brought to BD in an aggravating but fundamentally unimpeachable 2.40:1, 1080p presentation. Black drapes itself over everything like the Grim Reaper's cloak, but none of it has the tarry texture of crush, and detail mostly impresses beneath a fine scrim of grain. (Clint Eastwood remains one of the celluloid faithful despite his obvious fondness for digital post.) The film's palette tends towards the narrow range of two-strip Technicolor, but at almost exactly the 107-minute mark, the pasty skin tones inexplicably become just the slightest bit more flush. An attendant 5.1 DTS-HD MA track does what little is asked of it, beautifully. Two horseracing sequences are notably immersive and break up the tedium of a dialogue-heavy mix. The only extra is the aforementioned "J. Edgar: The Most Powerful Man in the World" (18 mins., HD), which enlists various members of the production team to offer colour commentary on the movie's eponymous subject. Points for eschewing the traditional making-of format, but a historian or two would've been nice. Revelling in the reductive tenor of the piece, actor Denis O'Hare says that without Hoover, there'd be no "CSI" franchise. Studio ephemera launches on startup, while a DVD inside the keepcase includes a Digital Copy of J. Edgar. Originally published: February 6, 2012.