CONTAINS SPOILERS AND BEWILDERMENT
How? How can this happen? How can you possibly make a film about a cross-dressing megalomaniac with a mother complex who ran the FBI for thirty seven years, including the Second World War and Nixon and Kennedy years, that's so thuddingly dull? Serious, sombre, worthy, respectful, meticulously crafted it may be, but it's also humourless, overlong and dull. What it really needed was Oliver Stone in JFK or Natural Born Killers mode to come on set and overdirect the film to pieces - or even in the style of Nixon, a terrific and much underrated film - rather than Clint Eastwood's glum and colourless approach to what should be dramatic dynamite. It would have been wild, outlandish, possibly even defamatory, but at least it wouldn't have been a cold grey stodge of a film.
J. Edgar flips backwards and forwards almost randomly across the years touching on the major points of Hoover's life and career: his relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), the early days of taking on Bolshevik revolutionaries, the gangster wars against the likes of Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly and Pretty Boy Floyd, and the Lindbergh baby snatching, as well as his longtime relationship with his number two, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) - were they gay lovers or just close work colleagues with no social life outside of the Bureau?
It's a story ripe with drama and action, but it refuses to come to life. Part of the problem is the film's structure that shuffles too frequently between the young, middle-aged and elderly Hoover and Tolson which necessitates extensive use of (not terribly good) prosthetics and hairpieces that make some of their scenes look like The Odd Couple or The Sunshine Boys. Naomi Watts is high on the billing but she's given very little to do beyond answer the phone as Hoover's executive assistant (again, sometimes in old lady makeup). And at the middle of it, in pretty much every scene, every shot, is Leonardo DiCaprio, who I don't really like as an actor but I do think is doing a perfectly decent job here as Hoover. But either he doesn't want to let rip, or Eastwood doesn't want him to let rip: it's as if they're so fascinated by Hoover the conflicted, unworldly man that they lose sight of Hoover the unreasoning monster.
It came out in January, at the height of the awards season, and certainly feels like it was made with major prizes in mind; in the event it only picked up one Golden Globe nomination (for DiCaprio), and no Oscars or Baftas. Maybe trimming would have livened it up a bit: at 137 minutes it's a definite plod. Certainly it's beautifully crafted and all the hats and cars and suits look right - though I don't doubt there's someone who spotted a 1929 wing mirror on a car supposedly in 1927 - but all the production design in the world isn't enough if the story isn't gripping and interesting. And, shockingly given the subject matter, this just isn't. If only Larry Cohen's The Private Files Of J Edgar Hoover was on UK DVD; I suspect that's a lot more fun.