While all evidence in regards to effort, artistic flair and direction of performance to the contrary, the belief is, at least in my book, that Eastwood is churning out these films just expecting Oscars to fall in his lap (or, at the very least, that is what his studio advertisers think). With the exception of Gran Torino, Eastwood's latest showcases at the cineplex have been approached as epics but come off as something ... less.
Before 1992, Eastwood has an up and down resume as a director. From 1992 onward (or the post-Unforgiven era) Eastwood has directed crowd pleasing, if moderately grossing, popcorn fare and Oscar worthy events. Since 1992, Eastwood, himself, has been nominated, either for directing, producing or acting in the movies he directed/produced, 10 times, winning four. Four of his movies have been nominated or won Best Picture.
But shortly after putting up prestige picture after prestige picture up on the screen and reaping the benefits, I think people just expected the next award-winning epic to come every time Eastwood sat down at the dailies screen. Thus, despite the studio's best marketing campaigns, the post-Letters From Iwo Jima period includes hits and misses like Changeling, Gran Torino, Invictus and Hereafter. All of these films have some kind of Oscar 'clout' behind them and their stories seem epic in scale ... but they all kind of fell a bit short of that, being nominated for a grand total of six awards, half of which were technical.
Good to great films? Yes or perhaps. But definitely falling short, award wise and entertainment wise, with what came before. But the prolific director never stops. In 2011 he approached another Oscar-bait worthy story based on history: that of controversial, larger than life, nearly mythological, revolutionary but troubled figure J. Edgar Hoover, the man behind the FBI.
Sadly, in totality, J. Edgar is more a latter day Eastwood flick and J. Edgar, while never exactly boring, fails to get the blood up. However, the saving grace is the incredible acting of the film's primary male leads: Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer.
I've always been iffy on DiCaprio. I usually think he has an amazing intensity but little depth. This film put that idea to bed completely. J. Edgar is DiCaprio's finest acting to date. As the title 'character', DiCaprio is completely and utterly the man being portrayed; a complex, haunting character who we see age from 19 until death without blinking an eye or losing the suspension of disbelief. Aided by great make-up (though it is only great on him and horrible on everyone else), DiCaprio is unrecognizable. Not 'unrecognizable' like Tom Cruise in Tropic Thunder but UNRECOGNIZABLE as in YOU HAVE NO IDEA IT IS LEO DiCAPRIO!
Armie Hammer, who I only recently heard of thanks to the endless marketing of The Lone Ranger, is deceptively deep as J. Edgar Hoover's right-hand man and potential love interest Clyde Tolson. The simmering tension between the two throughout, including a hotel room climax that is as nerve-wracking as is it tragically cathartic, is what really runs the film.
And Eastwood aids DiCaprio by making the surroundings murky, ambiguous and/or deceptive. J. Edgar Hoover, as the movie begins, is an old man trying to take down his memoirs. While doing so we see his past from a very young age as an ambitious career climber and surprisingly open-heterosexual charmer to a man given tremendous power despite crushing denial of his true nature, a bizarre relationship with his mother and crippling phobias.
In a sense, J. Edgar is DiCaprio getting a do-over on The Aviator, a good film that was just a bit over DiCaprio's head. But boy does he deliver here. Hoover is at times menacing, at times charismatic and at times a social misfit. Despite the fact that his endless drive led to a federal service that digs deep into the truth of every case, Hoover is a mysterious and unsolvable puzzle.
Some of the more grandiose stories about J. Edgar Hoover are addressed in this film with subtlety. For example, Hoover's tendency to dress in women's clothing is given an ambiguous approach and without DiCaprio at the top of his game, this might have been the death of the film as a drama. Also, Hoover's obsession with promoting the 'G-Men' image is shown through both the positive and the negative.
The most genius part of the whole proceedings is Eastwood's decision to show Hoover's story from Hoover's point of view. Eastwood employs such a deft touch that even if you didn't know the man, J. Edgar Hoover's retelling of events seems just a bit off kilter. Who do you trust and what do you believe?
Sadly, despite these pros, the film lacks any dramatic power despite the best efforts of the leads. Brokeback Mountain looks like kiddie fare compared to the amazingly mature and complex emotions presented on screen between Hoover and Tolson ... yet despite one scene of pressure being released, the film fails to deliver tension.
The editing may be the main culprit here as the flashback sequences tend to feel kind of like a 'summing up' of how the FBI was formed and what major cultural events Hoover was involved in. Some big time topics are addressed like the formation of the FBI as we know it with the 1919 raid of Communist Sympathizers to the Lindbergh Kidnapping and Trial, the bank robbing crime sprees of the 1930s and the assassination of JFK.
It is a shame because, in the end, it feels like two top of the line performances are wasted in a film that doesn't quite deserve them (though wouldn't succeed in the areas it does without them). Other factors don't help: Naomi Watts is virtually useless as initial love interest, later Hoover confidant and secretary Helen Gandy; Eastwood's score is good but pretty much exactly like the scores he has written for other films; a script that introduces and dispatches of characters so quickly that, due to terrible casting of the bit parts, you can't really tell who is who ... especially is they come back later in the story.
Hoover basically spear-headed the need for forensic science, a movie in itself, but that also gets short-shrift here as those plot points tell us more about Hoover himself than about how they effected society. In the end, J. Edgar is too insular despite an appearance of something more grand in scope. Beautifully shot, efficiently put together (from the costumes to the set design) but thoroughly lacking in drama, J. Edgar should be viewed as an acting showcase for two men but really nothing more.