Clint Eastwood’s latest film is a biopic in the more or less classic/modern mode, telling the story of the long and tortured life of a short and troubled man, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). Although there are some fine performances, the film doesn’t click at the level of morality tale that one suspects Eastwood was reaching for, and falls short of the grand tragedy it might have been. The most effective elements are the touching interpersonal and domestic tragedies of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson (Armie Hammer), and the insidious relationship Hoover had with his mother — and let me say Dame Judi Dench is riveting as a twisted and twisting mother out of some private Hell.
But the larger tragic theme never quite seems to click: how a man supposedly so devoted to truth and justice could remain so blind not only to the lies he told himself but the lies he told others, and how by setting himself up as private arbiter of justice committed great injustices against the country he loved. The theme almost clicks in the late scenes in which Hoover (perhaps) recognizes in Nixon some of his own foibles and failings, but the connection fails to link with a satisfying chunk of dramatic inevitability.
Perhaps I’m asking too much — but it seems to me that here was a story of possibly Shakespearian proportions, complete with subplots and levels of resonance. Yet the personal and public levels of the story fail to align in this dramaturgical dance, and remain as clumsy as Hoover’s own first efforts at terpsichore.
The film could have been a morality play for our time: when the well-meaning and self-righteous commit crimes in the cause of justice, and promote real falsehood in support of some abstract truth. Perhaps in retrospect the film will be seen in that light, but for the present it fails to make the connections.
There is much to admire in the technical aspects of the film, in terms of decor, costume and sense of period, but the make-up imposed upon Hoover and Tolson in an effort to age the actors has to be the worst I’ve seen in decades. The high-resolution camera is a harsher critic than I will ever be; but it is astounding to me that the make up on the men is so poor (you can practically see the seams) while Naomi Watts’ is so subtle and convincing. (Different make-up artists were involved, and it is easy to see who has the knack and who doesn't) A minor point, to be sure, but a distraction in engaging with the characters, who, to the actors’ credit, do manage to move and engage.
So this remains an actors’ film rather than a director’s. See it for the performances, and perhaps with a goal to find among the remnants some hint of what it might have been.
Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG