Clint Eastwood has been one of the most successful American film directors of the last forty years. Somehow he morphed from the fascist cop of the seventies through his ridiculous eighties japes with apes to a director of genuine subtlety and vision, redefining his own image and genres in the process with an idiosyncratic eye. His recent Superbowl advert shows clearly how he can be all things to all people; he's the right winger left wingers love. Patriotic undoubtedly but his patriotism is the platform from which to launch criticism rather than a hole to hide in. And yet the his idiosyncrasies mean that he is capable of truly baffling missteps: Bridges of Madison County, Pink Cadillac, and Hereafter. J. Edgar is similarly a misfire.
This is American history seen through one very specific lens that of the FBI's most famous figure, J. Edgar Hoover. Rather than launching a vitriolic attack of Hoover, Eastwood portrays him as a flawed maverick, a little like the director, John Wilson, at the centre of White Hunter Black Heart. This is a man who is forceful in his self-delusion but also charismatic and creative. He gets things done. The morality of what he does is of course open to question, but Eastwood stays up close to DiCaprio's portrait so that we are only offered a divergent opinion towards the end of the film by which time the point is almost moot. Dramatically, this means the film is very much office bound, and as Hoover gets older the narrative and performances become egg bound. This wouldn't be quite such a problem but for some terrifyingly bad make up on Armie Hammer's Clyde, who makes things worse with some shaky old man acting.
When we find out that our J. Edgar was not always the most reliable of narrators, it feels more like a quibble than a sin, a hint of vainglory rather than a genuinely troubling need to reassess all we've learned so far. And his suspicion of Nixon feels like an ill-judged pitch at vindication along the lines of 'worse was to come'.
John Bleasdale is a writer. His work has appeared in The Guardian, The Independent, Il Manifesto, as well as CineVue.Com and theStudioExec.com. He has also written a number of plays, screenplays and novels.