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Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar"

"Shapeless and turgid and ham-handed, so rich in bad lines and worse readings."

"It would be one thing if J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood's bio-pic of FBI head J. Edgar Hoover, were merely another Eastwood film shot in the cloudy, patent-medicine weak-tea sepia tones of a Ken Burns production, with its minor-key piano chords and historically appropriate pop songs," writes James Rocchi for Box Office. "It would be another thing if J. Edgar were simply another Leonardo DiCaprio film where the star — through makeup and miracles — portrays another complex American legend whose public persona was only the smallest part of his complex life, as the actor did in the Martin Scorsese-directed The Aviator. But between Eastwood's direction and Dustin Lance Black's screenplay, what you feel leaking off the screen in every scene is missed opportunity. This material could have inspired a serious and artistic examination of the role of law and intelligence in America, of the toxic nature of secrets, or of how desperate times demand desperate measures — and make public servants into desperate (and dangerous) men. Instead, J. Edgar functions as a Wikipedia page dipped in makeup, an assemblage of half-truths, gossip, innuendo and the occasional historical fact, all drenched in latex and drained of color. It's the cinematic equivalent of the animatronic Lincoln at Disney's Hall of the Presidents: stiff, jerky, mechanical, fake."

"The thrust of J. Edgar is that many of the US government's most dangerous tendencies — among them flagrant disregard for civil liberties — are rooted in a closeted gay man's terror of being exposed, especially to his mother," sums up David Edelstein in New York. "From that terror came Hoover's obsession with ferreting out other people's secrets, amassing private files on presidents and using them as leverage to remain in power. And the man who made sure that his bureau projected an aura of manly fitness struggled with the impulse to sashay around the house in dresses and pearl necklaces…. J. Edgar is the latest chapter in Eastwood's never-ending project to deconstruct the macho, jingoist, homophobic, right-wing archetype he once embodied — and prove himself an artist whose simplicity of style belies the most sophisticated understanding of the dual nature of the American character of any living filmmaker. That's the theory, anyway. It's too bad J. Edgar is so shapeless and turgid and ham-handed, so rich in bad lines and worse readings."

David Denby in the New Yorker: "The movie bears a thematic resemblance to Bernardo Bertolucci's The Conformist (1970), in which a repressed homosexual (Jean-Louis Trintignant) in the 1930s, longing for 'normality,' joins the Italian Fascist Party and operates as an amoral bullyboy. J. Edgar is the story of how a similarly repressed personality might operate in a democracy. The answer is privately, by accumulating secrets and blackmailing anyone who is even remotely a threat to his standing; and publicly, by making himself and his outfit pop-culture icons and then bending the government to his whim…. In the past, such beetle-browed heavyweights as Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, and Bob Hoskins have played Hoover. By using DiCaprio, and then aging him with prosthetic makeup, Eastwood lets us see how a slender, good-looking young man might thicken and coarsen with years and power…. DiCaprio never burlesques Hoover, but when he meets Armie Hammer's [Clyde] Tolson in his office for the first time he breaks into a sweat. Hammer — tall, handsome, suave yet gentle, with a sweet smile — gives a charming, soft-shoe performance that, in a memorable scene, explodes into jealous rage."

"Eastwood hasn't just made a bad film, he's also made a downright lazy one," argues Glenn Heath Jr at the House Next Door. "The flickers of narrative contrivance and ineptitude on display in Gran Torino, Invictus, and Hereafter are amplified tenfold here, proven by blatant miscasting, a manic screenplay devoid of sensible pacing, and overstuffed performances screaming for Oscar glory."

For Todd Gilchrist, writing at the Playlist, "J. Edgar is second- or third-tier Eastwood, the sort of respectably proficient but forgettable work that he did all too often before Million Dollar Baby reminded audiences that one of Hollywood’s oldest dogs still has some fight in him."

When J. Edgar opened the AFI FEST last week, Richard Lawson (Atlantic Wire) and Anne Thompson gathered first reviews from the trades and Louis Virtel (Movieline) collected first-impression tweets. Rebecca Keegan talks with Eastwood, DiCaprio and Hammer for the Los Angeles Times, Brooks Barnes profiles DiCaprio for the New York Times (and Tom Shone ranks his top ten performances) and David A Keeps profiles Hammer for New York.

Meanwhile, David Ng reports in the LAT on Saturday evening's "Art + Film" fundraising gala, "intended as a tribute to the overlapping worlds of cinema and the visual arts, though judging by the attendance roster the emphasis was more on the former than the latter…. The black-tie dinner was attended by approximately 500 guests, including the two honorees, Clint Eastwood and John Baldessari."

Update: For Tim Grierson, "J. Edgar is yet another recent Eastwood effort that aspires to great things but shortchanges itself with nagging problems that seem to be the result of the director's don't-fuss-over-everything style. The most obvious is the film's heavy makeup work for DiCaprio, Hammer and (as Hoover's longtime secretary) Naomi Watts in their old age. I don't find the actors' twilight-years look utterly embarrassing, but it is maddeningly inconsistent in its believability…. Judi Dench is despicably good as Hoover's judgmental, status-conscious mother, and Hammer gives a gallant, heartbreaking performance as a man who only wants to love Hoover, but the movie's exploration of the folly of power and fame don't add up to a lot."

Updates, 11/8: "The life and career of John Edgar Hoover should make a juicy movie; and in 1977, just five years after his death, it did: Larry Cohen's The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover," writes Time's Richard Corliss. But: "In the mood of the director's Changeling, the new film addresses a sprawling true story in frustratingly episodic terms, and weaves a meticulous cocoon of period detail around a valiant but miscast star — Angelina Jolie as the working-class mom in Changeling, DiCaprio as Hoover here…. In the past decade, the trio of artists responsible for this film have accomplished much: DiCaprio in Gangs of New York and The Departed, Black with his Harvey Milk bio-pic and some of the finest episodes of Big Love, Eastwood as director and star of Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. May they all rebound and flourish for decades more. We wouldn't put it past Clint: the man wears his 81 years with handsome grace. But J. Edgar is a blot on their collective résumé."

"Even with all the surprises that have characterized Clint Eastwood's twilight film years, with their crepuscular tales of good and evil, the tenderness of the love story in J. Edgar comes as a shock," writes Manohla Dargis in the New York Times. "[I]t's his handling of Hoover and Tolson's relationship that, as much as the late-act revelation of the pathological extent of Hoover's dissembling, lifts the film from the usual biopic blahs. Mr Eastwood doesn't just shift between Hoover's past and present, his intimate life and popular persona, he also puts them into dialectic play, showing repeatedly how each informed the other…. At once a fascinating psychological portrait and an act of Hollywood revisionism, J. Edgar doesn't set out to fully right the record that Hoover distorted, at times with the help of studio executives (including those at Warner Brothers, which is also releasing this film). Instead, Mr Eastwood explores the inner life of a lonely man whose fortress was also his stage. From there, surrounded by a few trusted souls, he played out a fiction in which he was as heroic as a James Cagney G-man (despite a life with a mother Norman Bates would recognize), but finally as weak, compromised and human as those whose lives he helped crush."

Updates, 11/9: "Clint Eastwood goes deep into Oliver Stone territory and emerges victorious with J. Edgar," declares J Hoberman in the Voice. "Although hardly flawless, Eastwood's biopic is his richest, most ambitious movie since the Letters From Iwo Jima/Flags of Our Fathers duo, if not Unforgiven…. Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, has furnished Eastwood with a complex, richly associative script that puts the first 20 years of Hoover's career (the 1920s and 30s) in the context of his last decade (the 1960s), with flashbacks motivated by the memoir he dictates to a succession of young agents. Crammed with material, even if the midsection is a bit slack, J. Edgar is a dense historical tapestry. Everyone from Emma Goldman and Shirley Temple to Norman Schwarzkopf Sr and HR Haldeman gets a cameo, but it's all in the service of historical perspective…. Like most Eastwood productions, J. Edgar is frugal and underlit; like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness."

For Glenn Kenny at MSN Movies, "the film really sings, or maybe the proper word is 'keens,' when exploring the almost masochistic stifling that Hoover did to himself. His tortured relationship with his associate Clyde Tolson and his strangulating attachment to his mother are the nerve centers of the movie. They give it its true force…. For all its rough edges, J. Edgar is finally a thought-provoking emotion picture of deep sadness, a far-ranging elegy disguised as a historical drama."

Jaime N Christley in Slant: "The fragile human body, aging or ailing, has been a favorite theme of director Clint Eastwood at least as far back as 1973's Breezy, a lovely, understated May-December romance starring William Holden and Kay Lenz, and in countless films since, including Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and so on. In J. Edgar, his achronological life story of the FBI's first director, who ruled over the Bureau with an iron fist for 48 years, images of the living, yet decaying, body are what turn a cookie-cutter biopic into something far more personal."

But for Salon's Andrew O'Hehir, J. Edgar is "a mendacious, muddled, sub-mediocre mess that turns some of the most explosive episodes of the 20th century into bad domestic melodrama and refuses to take any clear position on one of American history's most controversial figures…. I only wish I believed in hell so I could believe that it wasn't hot enough for John Edgar Hoover. But in all honesty, I'd much rather see a vigorous, propagandistic, right-wing defense of Hoover as a bastion of true Americanism than this tepid, long-winded and phony-looking exercise, which sort of implies that, on the one hand, he wasn't a very nice man but, on the other, he was an actual human being who suffered pain. But honestly, what can we expect from Clint Eastwood at this point? This movie says a great deal more about him, I'm afraid, than it does about J. Edgar Hoover. And what it says is that one of the greatest American screen actors of the 20th century has squandered much of that legacy in the 21st by becoming a director of indifferent Oscar-bait movies that look handsome on the surface but have nothing to say, and that nobody ever wants to watch twice."

"It's easy to see what attracted Eastwood, a lifelong libertarian, to the story of a government bureaucrat who dedicated his life to invading Americans' privacy and violating their civil rights," writes Ella Taylor for NPR. "But Eastwood's portrait of Hoover's many contradictions rarely goes beyond conventional biography…. J. Edgar never asks is why a man of so little vision or imagination exercises such a powerful hold on the public imagination to this day."

For Time Out New York's Joshua Rothkopf, "J. Edgar is infuriatingly coy and noncritical about its subject, an undeniable patriot but also an alarmist and a ruiner of lives."

"This is a sensitive, sympathetic portrait of a scummy little man, an earnest attempt to map the contours and contradictions of a complicated son-of-a-bitch," writes Movieline's Stephanie Zacharek. "But it's all too earnest, to the point of serving, unwittingly or otherwise, as an apologia…. If this is what 'greatness,' in a movie or in a performance, has to mean, I'd prefer a more intimate puniness, particularly when it comes to portraying a character like J Edgar Hoover."

At the House Next Door, R Kurt Osenlund weighs J. Edgar's Oscar prospects.

Updates, 11/10: "After I saw J. Edgar a few weeks ago, I wrote [for Artforum] that it's a late, kick-out-the-jams masterpiece," says Amy Taubin in a discussion of the film with J Hoberman and Eric Kohn at indieWIRE. "After a second viewing, I feel the same. What Eastwood does to the conventions of realism is wild. There are bits of Kane and bits of Psycho, but a lot of the movie is reminiscent of an amateur production of Tennessee Williams where the actors are 20 years too young for the roles they are playing, but nevertheless their struggles move you to tears." Hoberman: "DiCaprio is really first rate. It's close a career performance. Casting him may have been Eastwood's greatest inspiration (his presence alone makes the point that the young Hoover was a star), aside from taking on the project itself. I have to say that it warms my heart to see an 80-plus Dirty Harry driving another stake through Hoover's."

"To a greater degree than any of Clint Eastwood's films so far, J. Edgar… is a meditation about the passage of time, both in a nation and in a single human body," writes Dana Stevens. "When the film… focuses on the slow decline of its complex half-hero, half-villain, the results are surprisingly perceptive and tender. But when (as for most of its running time) it tries to provide a sweeping overview of seven decades of American history, J. Edgar can feel generic and vague, like a soft-focus newsreel or a strung-together series of History Channel re-enactments."

Also in Slate, Beverly Gage argues that "it is Hoover and Tolson's public life — the stuff we do know about — that is ultimately the most fascinating part of their story. They never openly acknowledged a sexual or romantic relationship. At the same time, they demanded — and received — a level of respect for their partnership that seems almost unthinkable in pre-Stonewall society. For some four decades, the crème de la crème of political America treated them as a recognized couple; when Edgar was invited to dinner, so was Clyde. We don't have to make up their most intimate scenes to find a relationship worth exploring."

"Clint Eastwood isn't just my favorite director, he's always seemed like a good role model for life," writes Sean Burns in the Philadelphia Weekly. "A stubbornly man's man, he does things his own way and doesn't listen to anyone else. But after watching J. Edgar, I'm beginning to think that might not quite be the best way to tackle things. This is an excruciating film, almost impossible to sit through at well over two hours."

"Eastwood's prim, respectful biography presents Hoover in turn as a muddy political metaphor, a lesson in self-mythologizing, and a case history in repression, but never particularly as a man," finds Tasha Robinson at the AV Club.

"Eastwood's dour J. Edgar sits across the law-and-order aisle from Michael Mann's pushy but no less self-conscious Public Enemies," writes Scott Wilson in the Nashville Scene. "When DiCaprio's Hoover addresses a movie audience from a newsreel that dissolves into a preview of James Cagney in The Public Enemy, Eastwood is answering Mann, in whose movie Johnny Depp's Dillinger watches a similar short that instructs the crowd to look around the theater for lurking villains. That's as alive as things get here, though."

Update, 11/11: "I don't get the impression from J. Edgar that Eastwood particularly respected Hoover, but I do believe he respected his unyielding public facade," writes Roger Ebert in the Chicago Sun-Times. "It is possibly Hoover's lifelong performance that fascinated him. There's a theme running through most of his films since Bird (1988): the man unshakably committed to his own idea of himself."

Update, 11/16: For Moving Image Source, Thomas Doherty traces the Hoover's Hollywood career.

Updates, 11/20: "If your idea of a good time is finding reasons to be interested in Clint Eastwood movies, J. Edgar is sort of interesting as the latest chapter in the ongoing saga of Clint's efforts to come to terms with the fact of homosexuality," writes Phil Nugent. "Back in the 70s, the early Dirty Harry movies had a homophobic subtext — Scorpio, the extortionist hippie serial killer of the first one, paid Harry a leering compliment on the size of his gun, and the secret police death squad in motorcycle gear of Magnum Force looked as if they'd stepped out of Scorpio Rising — that went surface text at the end of the third film in the series, The Enforcer, the one where Harry adds insult to injury by calling the chief bad guy a 'fucking fruit' as he blows him away. That was back when Eastwood was regarded as an action caveman by most critics. Now that he's a serious auteur in the winter of his career, he has to be more thoughtful about these things, or at least more solemn." Ultimately, Nugent finds J. Edgar to be one "long, uninspired slog of a movie."

Steve Erickson in Gay City News: "The film's depiction of Hoover and Tolson's relationship is never very explicit — hand-holding and one kiss after a fight is about as hot as it gets — but it's rather sweet. Eastwood seems to find something redemptive in Hoover's love for Tolson. At the same time, he and Black apparently buy into old-fashioned psychoanalytic theories about an absent father and smothering mother causing gayness, since that's the exact dynamic of Hoover's family." Ultimately, the film "turns liberal bona fides — an affirmative gay love story — to conservative ends."

Update, 11/23: "Hoover and his long-serving secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) are depicted as kindred clenched spirits," writes Adam Nayman in Reverse Shot. "[I]t's no coincidence that their abortive first date revolves around locating a catalogue card listing books on the topic of 'indiscretion.' The notion that Helen, who has 'no plans to marry,' is herself trapped in the closet is nicely underplayed by director and actress both, and there's power in the suggestion that Hoover's vendetta against Martin Luther King Jr — whom he threatens with blackmail on the eve of his accepting the Nobel Peace Prize — was rooted not in political expediency but personal resentment that the gains of the Civil Rights movement did nothing to ease the stigma of his own less visible minority. This is provocative stuff, but unfortunately it's also made ridiculous by its staging."

Update, 12/1: "J Edgar Hoover without menace is like Boris Karloff without bolts in his head," writes Russell Baker for the New York Review of Books. "Not an old softie, to be sure, but Eastwood's Hoover—though a sly, neurotic, and occasionally vicious bureaucrat—is scarcely a patch on the real-life Hoover who, as creator and director of the FBI from 1935 to 1972, once lurked in the nightmares of almost everyone with an interest in government and many more who simply went through life feeling guilty."

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I agree, the film is a mess. It has too many threads working at the same time and some of the makeup is not rendered well. Hammer is good, but DiCaprio seems to be channeling his Howard Hughes performance with his grimacing and mother issues.

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