Warner Bros.Like Grierson, I think Clint Eastwood's "J. Edgar" is better than most critics seem to be giving it credit for. The acting is uniformly excellent (it's another strong Leonardo DiCaprio performance, but I mostly found myself tapping my feet waiting for Armie Hammer to come back on screen), it has some legitimately moving moments, and it's impressively even-handed about J. Edgar Hoover, recognizing his many strengths along with his (much more well-known) weaknesses. But the movie has many faults, almost all of which can be laid at the feet of Eastwood himself.
It's not that the movie is incompetently made or anything. The movie looks terrific, and it benefits, as all Eastwood's movies do, from having an adult at the helm; there is a certain comfort in knowing that you are in the hands of professionals who have been doing this a long time. But it has many of the same problems Eastwood's last few films have had. It feels rushed, like Eastwood and company made sure to wrap up everything in time for lunch, and it's not interested in delving particularly deep into either Hoover's psyche or some of the real-world ramifications of the policies he created and implemented. There's a clear parallel to be made with Hoover's paranoia and our post-9/11 culture, but Eastwood doesn't seem willing to work hard enough to make them pop; as always, he just sort of films what's in the script and trusts his actors to take care of the rest. This has its charms -- Eastwood's films always feature good acting, at the very least -- but it leaves us waiting for the movie to make connections, to congeal, in a way it just never does. It is respectable and competent and, basically, bloodless.
It's a shame, because J. Edgar Hoover is a potentially epic central character, a powerful, tortured man who was meticulous, controlling, repressed and, quite probably, batsh-t insane. Perhaps the most influential and lasting American political figure of the 20th century also happened to be a closeted gay man, a cross-dresser, a prescription drug abuser and a secrecy-obsessed pseudo-agoraphobe. That's a story! Eastwood doesn't hit any of this hard enough, though; the film, ultimately, feels like a missed opportunity.
But that's been par for the course with Eastwood. Whatever my problems with "J. Edgar," I still think it's his best film in five years (since 2006's "Letters From Iwo Jima," which might actually be one of the best three films he's ever done). His last five films have all felt dusty; he has taken some outstanding stories and done little with them other than turn them in early and under budget. So I got to wondering: What other directors could have brought those stories to life? If Eastwood hadn't taken over the project, who could have done them justice?
Let's take a look.
2008. "Changeling." Slate's Dana Stevens was one of the few people who got this right at the time, writing, "'Changeling' doesn't invite the viewer to share in its heroine's disorientation, rage, and grief. Rather, it keeps us at a stately remove, presenting Christine's suffering as a kind of religious tableau." It was odd that the primal situation of this movie -- a woman's son disappears and is then replaced by an imposter thanks to a corrupt police department -- was so dispassionate. This needed to be a pulse-pounder, a madhouse procedural that was more Kafka than "L.A. Confidential." It also, frankly, needed a woman's touch, someone who understood the protagonist's anguish and terror in a way Eastwood wasn't willing to. You know who would have been great? Jane Campion.
2008. "Gran Torino." One of Eastwood's worst films, it features (up to now, anyway) Eastwood's last screen performance, as a cranky Detroit retiree who aids an Asian family struggling with gang violence. (Or something.) There are so many things wrong with this movie -- first and foremost, Eastwood seems to have no idea how average human beings live and work and talk to each other anymore -- but one thing that isn't is Eastwood's performance: He's such an icon now that you need a more involved director just to counterbalance him. You'd need someone who understands Asian-American culture far better than Eastwood -- this cuts downs the list by "zero" -- and also someone who had the good sense to knock off the faux-Western mythos that Eastwood's going for and just make it into the action movie it truly wants to be. Mock Justin Lin all you want, but all three of his "Fast and Furious" movie have more life in a frame than this cobweb-infested mess has during its whole running time.
2009. "Invictus." At this point, even longtime Eastwood worshippers were starting to have trouble admitting they were a little bored. This is a stirring, straight story that just needed a little bit more pep, a little less Morgan Freeman eye twinkle. It just needed grounding a little more. It also would have benefited from someone who had something to prove, who wanted their version of Oliver Stone's "World Trade Center," a hired hand who could show he could play ball while still making the film his own. I would have loved to have seen what Spike Lee would have done with this.
2010. "Hereafter." Now this is Eastwood's worst film. A gassy mishmash of hazy spiritual prattle, Eastwood didn't even bother to check and make sure the screenplay was finished before he started filming. Boy, does it ever show. Maybe there's a convincing story in there somewhere, though I doubt it. I'd have thrown the whole thing out, gave Terrence Malick $50 million, said, "Go make me a movie about death and loss and the afterlife" and then checked back in with him in 10 years. That movie would surely look nothing like this, thank heavens.
2011. "J. Edgar." Impeccable period costumes. A chilly, tortured lead character. A sublimated, closeted, anguished gay relationship. An overbearing mother who leaves her son confused and self-hating. An obsession with keeping the world clean and safe. The real question isn't why Eastwood directed this movie. The question is why Todd Haynes didn't.