Welcome to Monday Morning Review, a new feature here at Movies.com where we provide a review of a film the Monday morning after it arrives in theaters. As such, this review is written for people who have seen the film, and will discuss plot points, spoilers, etc, so read it only if you've seen it or if you don't mind knowing everything that happens.
From a script by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar offers a look at the life of an American public figure; the big difference, of course, comes in two regards. One is that while Harvey Milk's life was by and large a story of public activism -- and, by extension, a matter of public record -- Hoover's life, by and large a story of secrets and conspiracies, is not a matter of the public record. The other is that Gus Van Sant, whatever you have to say about his failings or merits as a director, is not afraid of sex. And I think you can argue that Eastwood is.
It's not just comparing the sex in Milk to the near-total absence of it in J. Edgar -- although, it's worth noting one film has two lovers lying in bed spattered and smeared with sweat and other fluids, while the other has one kiss, after a fight pushed on an unwilling recipient, through bloody lips -- it's looking at the absence of sex in J. Edgar as part of Eastwood's scared and skeeved-out attitude towards sex in his whole career. Play Misty for Me is about a man pursued by an unwanted lover; The Beguiled is about sexual manipulation with life-or-death stakes. His later films are devoid of it -- it feels like anything as random and impetuous as passion would derail Eastwood's stolid, starched and stiff worldview.
This would not matter for another film, but Eastwood seems to be having it both ways here -- or, rather, not having it both ways. Considering that the whole film seems to revolve around the question of "Did they or didn't they" -- with no historical evidence either way -- the film feels like the inverse of a striptease, in which young flesh and desire are masked by adding latex and pale powder, bit by bit, until the characters are wreathed in sexless old-age make-up. Armie Hammer, in an interview for J. Edgar, explained that Hoover had taken his own pictures of his right-hand man, Hammer's character Clyde Tolson -- pictures of Tolson sleeping. If only that moment of Hoover shooting photos in the dark while his subject slept and dreamed -- or anything like it, full of thwarted desire, bizarre intimacy, and longing-filled strangeness -- were in the actual film, not merely DiCaprio and Hammer's few hand-clasps and that one bloody kiss.
Which is another problem with J. Edgar. Like many Oscar-season bio-pics, the effort to get everything on-screen, from his early youth in the '20s to his crepuscular decline in the 1970's, makes for a film that gives us historical events without end, and great moments in history, but gives the characters short shrift as they get lost in the sweep and scale of the timeline of the film. Too many bio-pics feel like "Greatest Hit" records -- big moments we know all too well, with no sense of the moment-by-moment changes that came between those moments sampled from decades. If Eastwood and Black had picked one event in Hoover's life -- the Lindbergh kidnapping, or his battles with the Kennedys, both of which were fraught with a combination of Hoover working towards the greater good and still working towards what was best for him -- we wouldn't have gotten the full length of Hoover's life, but I can't help but think we would have gotten a much fuller story.
Much like The Changeling, J. Edgar is another Eastwood period piece -- but shot as if through three inches of weak tea, with muted tones and brown clothes. I'm not demanding Eastwood be Baz Luhrmann, but anyone who sat through sepia-tone historical diorama cinematography will probably feel a strong sense of nostalgia for Michael Mann's Public Enemies -- which was full of vibrant light, life and color when compared to the drab and dulled down J. Edgar. The Academy may go crazy for J. Edgar -- considering that to the Academy's aged members, Hoover is a figure from their lives -- but audiences seem to be giving it the cold shoulder with its $11.5 million box office. (It's also worth noting that the audience for the film was, as noted at Box Office Mojo , 94% over the age of 25.) A great director can use film to make American history seem alive; Eastwood's dry sexlessness, overly-broad scope and other artistic decisions in "J. Edgar' turn American history into American history class, full of facts without feeling and dates dry as dust.