I’ve figured out the secret to the Clint Eastwood Auteur Brand, and it only took me a hair under thirty years.  By my estimation, though, taking thirty years still puts me well ahead of critic Richard Schickel, who—after two books, one retrospective documentary, a handful of audio commentaries, and a personal relationship with Dirty Harry himself—regards the filmmaker with the impartial fawning of a personal assistant.  Take that, Time Magazine‘s premiere movie authority!

It’s easy: give Clint a simple story, and he’ll produce a masterpiece.  I’m not disparaging the man (that comes later); think of his best films.  Play Misty for Me, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Bronco Billy, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby.  Each has a hard, no-fat description.  A philanderer picks up the wrong woman.  A cowboy avenges his murdered family.  A rodeo clown searches for dignity.  A reformed killer accepts one last hit.  A female boxer strives to become world champion.  Like Eastwood’s other favorite art form (jazz), it’s the telling, not the tale. His spare, almost elegiac directing style—the way he plays with light and shadows, the space his films have in between the clichés—can give a simple genre standard the weight and power of a classic fable.

However, when he actively strives for relevance—whoa, boy.  That space is charming when it leavens hyperbolic material; it’s downright soporific in support of the less thrilling narrative.  Think of his worst films: Bird, Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, Mystic River, his Flags of Our Fathers/Letters from Iwo Jima diptych, Changeling, Hereafter.  Try boiling away the fat, and you’ll be left with steam.

Now, that’s not to say there aren’t anomalies.  The Rookie is as uninspired an action picture as I’ve ever seen, while Invictus finds the director deftly handling a complex subject, but on the whole, these sprawling, “important” tales never cohere the way his more unassuming projects because, when you get right to it, overt ambition exceeds Eastwood’s limitations.  “Limitation” isn’t a knock; all the greats have them, and I include Clint Eastwood in the pantheon of great directors.

Well, J. Edgar presents Eastwood with a formidable challenge: to parallel the major achievements/disgraces in the life of the former FBI director with Hoover’s own crippling emotional issues.  It is macro and micro, and Eastwood’s most ambitious venture to date.

It doesn’t break the pattern.

At least it’s better than Hereafter.  That earlier film (his worst) plodded along with no urgency, and J. Edgar, for all its endless cycling through time—the film begins with the bloated, aged Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio, who is consistently commanding, even if his work skews towards the one-note) in the 1960’s, only to then cut back and forth between his attempts to control the Kennedys and Martin Luther King Jr. and his formative days as a cub agent in the Justice Department—has clear forward momentum.

We see how the Communist attacks of the late 1910’s helped shape his hyper-vigilance; how his penchant for uncovering everyone’s dirtiest secrets inured him against the better judgment of eight Presidents; how his early advances in law enforcement (utilizing forensic sciences, legitimizing the FBI) couldn’t whitewash the impact of his twilight years’ indiscretions (illegal wiretaps, ignoring due process).  Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black stuff the picture with incident stuffed with incident; if nothing else, it’s rarely boring.

But on the script level, the movie never quite satisfies dramatically.  Black does a good job of condensing fifty years into 130 minutes, but it’s a shallow fix—we glide over incidents better explored with greater detail.  As I see it, Black wants to 1) give an overview of Hoover’s work with the FBI and 2) chart the emotional toil of Hoover’s deeply ambiguous partnership with long-time protégé Clyde Tolson (The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer, giving the best, most unaffected performance in the film).

Black cannot do both.  The film’s procedural elements—Hoover’s extended search for the Lindbergh baby, his surveillance of key political figures—lack real specificity (we get a lot of scenes talking about the importance of fingerprinting or wood grain analysis but little in the way of actual demonstrations), while the development of his and Tolson’s relationship feels like it’s missing a few key scenes.

Ironically, Black solved this problem in his Milk screenplay; that earlier film made time for Harvey Milk the Politician and Harvey Milk the Man because it limited its focus to Milk’s San Francisco years.  If Black made central the Lindbergh kidnapping, he might have had more time to delve into Hoover with the same care he showed Harvey Milk, but providing a bigger picture shows us less.

You wish Eastwood would have recognized this deficiency, would have spent a little more time workshopping the script.  Instead, he’s pulled another “Shoot the first draft,” and we’re left with flickers of brilliance.  Eastwood’s eye for thrilling period details.  The way Hoover tentatively approaches coming out to his mother (Judi Dench, largely wasted), and her casually brutal response.  A handful of delicate, wrenchingly moving scenes between DiCaprio and Hammer that suggest depths left largely unexplored.

In essence, a lot of ambition that Eastwood’s gentle, unassuming style fritters away.  Same old, same old.

Warner’s Blu-ray/DVD/UltraViolet combo pack faithfully represents Eastwood and DP Tom Stern’s near-monochromatic color palette; I often wish they’d take the plunge into full-on black-and-white, but why carp?  The transfer looks perfect in HD.  Same goes for the 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio track, which succeeds at the unenviable task of making quiet clear.

We get one special feature, an eighteen-minute-long “Well, duh” featurette.  I call it that because the “insights” included elicit that response.  “You say it’s been a dream to work with Clint Eastwood?  That Hoover’s complicated life made for dramatic potentials?  Well, duh!”  No real substance of either historical or cinematic interest.

J. Edgar is ambitious, and since this is Clint Eastwood, it’s an ambitious failure.  Here’s to keeping it simple next time.

J. Edgar streets on February 21st.  Click HERE for Amazon’s page listing.

Home Culture Movie Review: Director Clint Eastwood Stumbles with Ambitious Misfire J. EDGAR