Clint Eastwood is back in all of his desaturated, monochrome glory. He’s back with another serviceable film, but also another film that falters too many times. By my count, and without having seen all of his recent filmography, I put his current rut as director at about 8 years. Which is a shame – when Eastwood hits (Unforgiven, Mystic River, Play Misty For Me, The Outlaw Josie Wales) he really hits.
DiCaprio plays the titular character alongside a huge supporting cast. The script, by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black (who also hasn’t done much of interest outside of that picture) takes on a flashback structure as J. Edgar dictates his memoirs and the scope – from his fledgling, pre-CIA years, through his meeting with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the Lindbergh kidnapping, his contentious relationship with the Kennedys, the MLK and JFK assassinations, his mother’s death – is huge. This scope is one of the faults of the film. While touching on many issues, including his purported homosexuality, the film never really lands. J. Edgar suffers the same affliction that the two-part Soderbergh Che films suffered – broad scope, lack of focus. At least the Soderbergh films were more visually interesting and did a better job narratively.
The structure of J. Edgar is perhaps the most confounding part of Black’s script. It doesn’t seem to add much to the narrative, and the one thing that it does attempt – a contrast between Edgar’s past and present – is merely brushed past. Case-in-point: Edgar tells, in the present, of a daring bust of an alleged Communist hideout. As he talks, his dialogue switches to voiceover and we are treated to a view of the past. Young Edgar hands out guns to agents and the action ensues. Doors are broken down. Punches thrown. Tables overturned. In the present, Edgar’s dialogue is boastful and celebratory. But in the past, his face is a mask of horror and confusion. The past and present are at odds. This is a nice moment in the film. The dichotomy simply hinted at for the attentive viewer. Were J. Edgar to continue on this route of split and selective memory and make this strategy the main narrative thrust then it would likely have been a successful film.
Unfortunately, Eastwood and Black are too easily distracted, and instead of a portrait of a man with a warring psyche, we get everything from cliche mommy issues to ham-handed lovers’ spats and ludicrous parodies of RFK and Nixon.
Of course writer and director are smart enough to at least return to this issue when, at the end, Edgar’s long-time companion, Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer in the role of the jilted lover, and with the unfortunate and ridiculous looking aging makeup) calls him on it. He tells Edgar that everything in Edgar’s memoirs is a lie. That Edgar didn’t shoot Dillinger, that Lindbergh didn’t personally come out to greet the director of the CIA. In short, Clyde destroys much of what Edgar has convinced himself of, and some of what we’ve been shown. Instead of this moment having particular power and playing with the idea of memory in a Resnais-style, or even in the somewhat-successful Atonement, it’s a boring final spat. Much of this failure is due to the way the “lied about” material is presented beforehand. Eastwood refuses to play coy in the way he does with the earlier past/present contrast. We already know by the end that he didn’t shoot Dillinger. We saw Lindbergh greeting Edgar (at odds with Clyde’s reveal), but it’s played out at a distance and shortly.
Where the common use of flashbacks is to reveal that which is hidden in the present, this attempt to contrast the driven young man with the older man now tormented by past mistakes falls flat for lack of a through threadline of this deterioration in the flashbacks.
Script aside, Eastwood does have some very solid directorial moments. The blocking is built around two things: Edgar’s inability sit still and his need to lead. Therefore, he, and the camera, move frequently. The camera is constantly tracking backwards, with Edgar in the foreground. As we get to the present that camera slows, partially for his slower movement, but also because he less leads a charge than keeps a gasping agency out of view of the Kennedys and Nixon.
On November 22, 1963, when JFK is shot, Edgar is in his office alone, listening to a tape that allegedly has MLK having sex with an unnamed woman. As part of his “made up history” dictates, the scene cuts to a shadow-play of an unknown motel room, with man and woman making love off-screen. When he receives the phone call of the president’s assassination it’s the oddest, but most appropriate moment in the film: from the phone receiver we hear the breathless report of the murder and commotion in the background. From the still-running tape, visually in the foreground, we hear the moans and breath of a sexual encounter. This aural juxtaposition echoes Edgar’s sensibilities, and the charges frequently leveled at he and the CIA: personal obsessions (MLK) distract from national duties (JFK), and the uselessness of the department (the president dies while a future Nobel Laureate is stalked). It’s also an intriguing representation of Edgar’s own sexual repression: this man skulking in his office over a reel-to-reel tape listening to the breathy sounds as a fantasy plays out in his own head equates him less with a national leader intent on protecting the home-front and more with any old man sneaking into the local porn theater.
It’s not only the script, makeup, and a few parody-level performances that undo J. Edgar. It’s also the pacing. Pacing is a tough thing to nail down. For me it can mean a number of things: the literal duration of the shots, the frequency of the edits, the length of scenes, the movement of actors. All of these slow down in the third, turgid, histrionic act. Black’s script is certainly at fault, but Eastwood himself gets too drawn into the slow (emphasis on slow) decay of this man, directing things down to a crawl and hoping that, a Citizen Kane-like madness and isolation will be interesting enough to maintain the final 30 minutes. He’s wrong. Kane’s ending still involves unthreaded threads and untold tales. The ending of J. Edgar is rehash and repetition, where the few truly dramatic moments – Clyde’s stroke, for example – are outdone by the insistence on making this third act only about a small man in his office. Ironically then, the larger script is outdone by its too-big scope, and the third act is outdone by its too-small, redundant focus.