J. Edgar was going to be bad or horrible: it is an Oscar season biopic, and that is absolutely never a good sign, directed by Clint Eastwood, a filmmaker with a one-size-fits-all aesthetic, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio, an actor who hasn't done anything to seriously challenge himself since 2002's Catch Me If You Can. And sure enough, J.Edgar is almost exactly what it feels like it ought to be with all of those strikes against it, but the whole effect is honest-to-God compelling anyway, possibly because the straitjackets of Eastwood's directing, DiCaprio's limited acting, and the inherent formalism of the biopic all unite so nicely with the subject matter of a man of great power and virtually no imagination who persisted in seeing the world in terms of binaries, primarily his unyielding certainty in his own rightness against everybody and everything else.
It is still a considerably flawed movie. Of all the great living American filmmakers, Eastwood is the likeliest to be hobbled by an ineffective screenplay, frequently not even attempting to fix it: his last film, Hereafter started shooting against the complaints of its own writer that the script wasn't ready yet. And that is exactly what happens in J. Edgar, particularly when we compare it to its two most obvious antecedents, The Aviator (a biography of an prominent 20th Century figure with severe mommy issues) and Milk (a gay-themed biopic written by J. Edgar screenwriter Dustin Lance Black). Those films boasted directors in the form of Martin Scorsese and Gus Van Sant, respectively, who have customarily attacked a poor script as an opportunity and a challenge, and both of their films ended up being better than they had any right to be. J. Edgar, on the contrary, is exactly as schematic as the form dictates, beginning in the 1960s with a surly J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) reciting his memoirs to anaide, presenting his own private history of the preceding 40-something years during which he turned the FBI into a dominant force in American law enforcement, the self-serving revisionism of an angry man with a passionate need to control everything and everyone around him.
The biggest problem with the film is its strict adherence to the familiar biopic formula of taking place entirely within a nest of flashbacks: neither Eastwood nor Black can ever quite make sense of the hopping back and forth between the 1960s and Hoover's rise to power - contrasting the Lindbergh baby kidnapping with the Kennedy assassination might make sense somewhere, in some tortured way, but it is not here - and the immediate comparisons we get to make between a doughy, wrinkled Hoover in his old age and the leaner, but no less lively Hoover-as-24-year-old are too self-conscious to come across as well as the filmmakers certainly intended (meanwhile, some of the cuts used to "cunningly" tie the two eras together are just too cutesy for words, and far beneath what Eastwood's regular editors, Joel Cox and Gary Roach, have proven themselves capable of in the past).
What is a little bit surprising, given the pedigree, is how convincing the actual meat of the character study is: there's a little bit of Psychology 101 and a whole lot of Freudianism in this tale of how Hoover's leathery mother (Judi Dench) turned him into a neo-fascist power freak by insisting that he always be in control of everything, while forcing him to tragically and traumatically stomp all over his attraction to men with her sneering hatred of "deviants", language that Hoover himself adopted, but thankfully it's not spelled out for us so glaringly as in The Aviator, which all but opens with the thesis statement, "this is about his mother". Indeed, by the time Black starts to hammer us over the head with things, the movie has been going on for quite long enough that we've figured it out, mostly, through the film's implications and innuendos, though this does not make the last 25 minutes any less garish or trying, as we get characters screaming at Hoover and scenes of him dressed in his mother's clothes, weeping softly (J. Edgar falls apart in the last act as thoroughly as a decent-until-that-point biopic could possibly do).
Up until it comes down with an attacks of the obvious, though, J. Edgar is remarkably non-sensational in telling its tale of how a miserable, crabbed hypocrite tried to purify himself through moral absolutism, and through using a position of considerable power to force that absolutism on everyone else. Eastwood and Black regard Hoover as a tragic figure, rather than as a monster - in the broken-down last act, he's visually and narratively contrasted with Richard Nixon, the director's hamfisted way of saying, "see what an actual cartoon bad guy looks like?" - and though the film never absolves him for being a petty tyrant and arbitrarily cruel to the only people he ever let into his life, the filmmakers feel sorry for him much more than they want to indict him.
A lot this is programmatic, and it doesn't all work the way it might: as Hoover's lifelong companion and presumed lover Clyde Tolson, Armie Hammer is mostly asked to stand and be pretty, and then he is asked to wear some of the most unutterably bad old-age makeup in modern memory (DiCaprio's does not look half as bad, though it's no great shakes), and with that character given so little of interest to do, some of the best chances to dig into Hoover's actual heart and soul are simply ignored. Naomi Watts, as the FBI director's personal secretary, gets even less to do, though her make-up is probably the best in the movie. I don't mean to keep bringing it up, but it's wildly distracting; film being a visual medium, when the visuals get in the way of the story being told, that is a problem, and it's no good when the big emotional confrontations primarily raise questions like, "Why is Armie Hammer wearing cake batter all over his face?"
But DiCaprio himself is unexpectedly good - or maybe it's better to say that J. Edgar uses his limitations better than anything else has in years. He's stern, mirthless, and inflexible; awful sins in most performances, but that's who the character was, or at least that's who the film wants him to be. And Eastwood's famously stripped-down aesthetic of heavily desaturated colors and arch-minimalist music is far better suited to this sober-minded business than it was to e.g. Changeling; Tom Stern's characteristic cinematography is as effective as in any Eastwood film since Letters from Iwo Jima.
Which doesn't keep the film from being sort of tired on the whole: Eastwood's entire scheme of late has been to be something of a generic magpie, telling stories of every stripe using that same basic, raw sort of filmmaking (the cinematic equivalent to Hemingway's unadorned prose), and it frequently doesn't work at all, such as when he tried to make a paranormal drama with Hereafter; but then again, the very messiness of that film, or Changeling, makes them fascinating curiosities. J. Edgar is far too competent to have that kind of fascination; but it is not good enough on its own terms to reach the highs of a Million Dollar Baby. In the process of making a largely effective biopic, Eastwood has made... a largely effective biopic, and there's not much that's less interesting than an effective biopic, particularly one that's overlong and has the structural wobbliness of J. Edgar. It's good to know he can still crank out a straightforward, handsomely professional piece of work, but it didn't have to be so safe and sedate in the process.