Enjoyment of a film is often based on expectations. If you expect to see a brilliant documentary such as “Man on Wire” and, instead, the projectionist starts up the Marlon Wayans college basketball comedy “The Sixth Man,” you will be disappointed. But if you are in the mood to watch a ghost teach someone how to play basketball (and, frankly, who isn’t in that mood at least once an hour?), you might find “The Sixth Man” to be fun, Wayansian entertainment.
The advertisements for “J. Edgar” included explosions, yelling, criminal chases, and promises of an Oscar-caliber film, but at least half of the film focuses on the unrequited, almost asexual, homosexual relationship between J. Edgar and his male aide and a storyline that is too ambitious at times (it spans seven decades) and too chaotic at others. Many filmgoers expecting to see the historical narrative of the man who led to F.B.I. into one of the most prestigious crime-solving agencies in the world should be aware of his alleged homosexual tendencies (including cross-dressing), but will be surprised that “J. Edgar” is significantly more reminiscent of the better “Brokeback Mountain” than “The Good Shepherd” (which was about the emergence of the C.I.A.) and less engaging than either film. One wonders if this is how people felt when they went to “Brokeback Mountain” expecting a John Wayne western.
Writer Dustin Lance Black has made a career out of promoting gay rights, so his focus should not surprise. He won an Oscar for writing “Milk” (about California’s first openly gay official) and narrated a documentary about the Mormon Church’s opposition to gay marriage in California. What’s surprising is that Clint Eastwood chose to turn the story of J. Edgar Hoover into a salacious tale of a relationship that hasn’t been entirely proven in the public record rather that focus his attention on the script’s difficult non-linear storyline and its surface-level approach to important cultural and social issues such as J. Edgar Hoover’s manipulation of presidents, distrust of Martin Luther King, Jr., and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. These issues are covered, but each could fill its own riveting film, as would many other fascinating stories from Hoover’s almost 50 years as head of the FBI. The problem might be that J. Edgar Hoover’s personal life, like his secret files on numerous leaders, is a closed book. It requires some speculation to know how he ever really felt, which demands a strong storyteller. While Black and Eastwood hit some high notes, “J. Edgar” is not the compelling drama it could have been.
No blame should be placed on the tremendous cast. Leonardo DiCaprio continues to prove he is talented far beyond his years, here literally as he performs many of the film’s most dramatic scenes under layers of latex that make him almost unrecognizable. When he has an important moment, he grabs it and takes hold. DiCaprio certainly deserves an Oscar nomination and praise. Dame Judi Dench is also splendid as his mother, lending an air of class, though her role is often wrapped up in cliches including the “I’d rather you be dead than gay” scene that is written more for an episode of “Glee” than a potential Oscar winner. Still, she makes the material work even though Hoover’s American/Swiss mother has her trademark British accent. Naomi Watts brings strength to a narrowly written role despite very rarely ever looking like Naomi Watts. Then, there’s Armie Hammer.
As the aide, Hammer is given not only the film’s worst emotional scene, which falls into camp and would be ridiculed if the film weren’t taking itself so seriously, he also has the worst make-up. Hammer’s usual Sam the Eagle recitation of lines (seen as both twins in “The Social Network”) only adds to his Frankenstein monster-like appearance under tight facial prosthetics to make him look older. This is a pity, as Hammer does an admirable job, trying to give the film its heart. He has some witty lines, some funny ones, and truly rises above the material.
But it always comes back to the material. Black is a good writer; Eastwood is an excellent filmmaker, but neither gave the tremendous source material the movie it deserves. If they wanted a relationship drama, they needed to make the audience care more about the characters, even when Hoover didn’t care about the relationship. If they wanted to craft an intelligent crime drama, more attention to the real life crime details would have benefitted the film, as would less editing that flips in and out of the Lindbergh baby sub-plot at a frenetic pace. Instead, “J. Edgar” is a very well-acted, occasionally thrilling film by an A-list cast and crew that, unfortunately, will not exceed many people’s expectations.