Film actors must trust their directors; among other great powers, a director has the ability to lose a great performance and only show the bad bits. To truly deliver something special on screen the actor must close their eyes and fall backwards into the arms of the director, like in one of those trustfalls you would do in camp.
In J. Edgar Armie Hammer closed his eyes tightly, crossed his hands over his chest and fell backwards, fully expecting Clint Eastwood’s loving but manly arms to catch him. Instead Armie plummeted right to the cold ground while Eastwood had wandered off to the next set-up. Rarely has an actor been as betrayed by his director. Hammer has some of the best scenes in the film, but half of his performance is obscured by horror movie old age makeup - a friend commented that he looks like Old Spike Jonze in Jackass - and his most important emotional scene is pitched way too high, coming off shrill and campy.
Hammer plays Clyde Tolson, J. Edgar Hoover’s longtime companion and, the film says, chaste love. When he isn’t encumbered by two pounds of latex Hammer is charming and interesting and funny, and I kept wondering why this movie wasn’t called Tolson; I’d rather see the story of how this man came to love a despicable toad like J. Edgar Hoover than to watch the other side of that relationship.
Despite trying to humanize him with an overbearing mother and repressed sexuality, J. Edgar never manages to make Hoover anything more than a despicable toad; the film tracks his character arc from being a young creepy monster to being an old creepy monster. When not buried beneath slightly less shitty old age make-up, Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover with a constant ‘I smell a fart’ face.’ He’s okay in the younger Hoover scenes, but the old age stuff - just under half the movie - is a farce. It’s impossible to watch familiar actors under rubber talking in put-on old people voices and take it seriously. The farcical aspects of J. Edgar extend to the emotional scenes; the moment when Hoover cross dresses for the first time (mourning the death of his mother) is like something out of a sketch.
The film tries to avoid some of the pitfalls of the biopic genre by being structured as aging Hoover dictating his story to a succession of FBI agents, but that doesn’t stop J. Edgar from being yet another pageant movie - one where famous historical figures and events come out on stage, wave to the audience and move along (can we call a moratorium on actors attempting to imitate the cadences of the Kennedy brothers? It always comes across as cartoonish). Hoover literally stands on his balcony and waves to a couple of presidents who are parading past his office to their inauguration; later he waits to meet them in the Oval Office and while we rarely see them, we hear hilarious voice versions of them, beckoning him into their sanctum.
Writer Dustin Lance Black splits the film in half; the modern day dictating Hoover is stomping around being all upset by Martin Luther King and battling to keep his hold over the FBI and his secret files (which include a tape recording of King having an extramarital affair; the scene where pervy old Hoover listens to the tape is a highlight of the movie’s unintentional comedy as King intones porny sounding stuff like ‘Oooh yeah, that’s good.’). The flashback material is young Hoover rising through the ranks, and how the Lindbergh Baby kidnapping case helped him turn the Bureau of Investigation - a law enforcement group that had no mandate to actually enforce law - into the modern FBI. Like Tolson, I found the Lindbergh Baby story much more interesting than Hoover’s own tale, and would happily line up to see a good cinematic adaptation of that. In J. Edgar the disjointed and lengthy nature of the case - it has few truly dramatic police moments, unless you find the analysis of wood grain dramatic - makes it a weak and flabby centerpiece.
Black’s script also delivers clunker after clunker. J. Edgar is the sort of film where characters simply deliver blunt exposition to one another (a symptom of the pageant-style biopic, a form which Hollywood should simply outlaw). There are exchanges like this (paraphrased):
Hoover: I am opening a secret file on the President’s wife.
Tolson: Mrs. Roosevelt?
Hoover: Yes, Eleanor Roosevelt!
Again, I’m paraphrasing, but you get the gist of it. Leaden lumps of lip droppings.
The best parts of J. Edgar are the moments between Hoover and his mother, played by Judi Dench. There’s a creepy Psycho aspect to the relationship, and it’s interesting. But the film is looking to humanize Hoover, not simply make him a horror character - which when it comes to things like ‘civil liberties’ he totally was. That’s the third movie I would have rather seen than J. Edgar: Hoover and Mom.
In Nixon Oliver Stone was able to add a layer of humanity to one of the most despised presidents of all time; there was tragedy at the heart of Tricky Dick’s evil. There’s pain at the heart of Hoover’s evil as well, but there’s nothing tragic about it. And frankly Clint Eastwood is no Oliver Stone; J. Edgar feels more like an actual movie than Eastwood's last few films, all of which were essentially rough drafts, but it's still lumpy and often graceless.
Hoover was a dark and evil man, and in a different political system his sinister machinations might well have been more destructive and deadly. Which means he deserved a biopic that wasn’t alternately hilarious and tedious.