Clint Eastwood’s labored ‘J. Edgar’ opens AFI Fest — is this Leo’s year?

I find myself coming down a number of different ways on Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” which saw its world premiere tonight as the opening film of the 25th annual AFI Fest. It’s weird, really. There are things to admire. There are things that are maddening. There are the usual caveats of a latter-day Eastwood film, and yet some indications of a departure from recent disappointments. (It’s probably my favorite of his films since “Letters from Iwo Jima.”)

At the heart of this vacillating, though, is a definitive opinion: Leonardo DiCaprio is exceptional in the title role, digging into an incredibly complex character, committing from frame one to the embodiment and maintaining that course without losing focus. It’s at times a broad portrayal of a broad persona, but I thought the actor found ways to dial it down and make the internal machinations of the man count. And I think it could very well carry him to that elusive first Oscar win.

The film itself, though, wasn’t as impressive. The problems mostly stem from a somewhat lazy, arbitrarily structured “greatest hits” screenplay from Dustin Lance Black. It’s clunky and labored, but it’s really only part of the problem.

I appreciated that Eastwood and Black were attempting a balanced portrait, but there were moments that stuck out, usually directorially, as nearly propagandistic, little things that would just take me out of the film from time to time. And they probably would have done so even if I wasn’t aware of Eastwood’s conservative politics.

Then again, maybe it’s a misread on my part. The script leaves itself a bit of an out toward the end with some straight-shooting from Armie Hammer, but, well, I don’t know. Some moments smelled funny is all I’m saying.

Anyway, speaking of Hammer, it’s worth noting his performance as Hoover’s long-time colleague, confidante and rumored lover, Clyde Tolson. On the lover bit, the film tries its hand at subtly conveying the homosexual thing (which itself stems from the word of a woman with questionable credibility), but it ultimately has a rather definitive take on it. Regardless of that, Hammer is pretty solid, particularly in later scenes following Tolson’s stroke that allow him to take the character in a whole new direction. It could bring him Best Supporting Actor recognition. We’ll see.

Judi Dench is fine if sparsely used as Hoover’s mother. More apparent throughout is Naomi Watts, as long-time personal secretary Helen Gandy. But I don’t think either will find awards traction. It’s DiCaprio and Hammer, I’d say.

One Oscar I think the film will win walking away, though, is Best Makeup. With the exception of applications on Hammer — which are jarring and just feel wrong — the aging makeup here is really good and will be a talking point for the film. I can’t imagine there being much competition. Maybe “The Iron Lady.” And, again, with the exception of Hammer at times, it’s not a hindrance to performance.

Finally, production value is exceptional across the board. Art direction, costumes, even the editing (which is forced to be a bit showy due to the script randomly jumping back and forth through time), all of it will be in the conversation.

I don’t get Eastwood’s penchant for filming in such dark hues these days, though. It’s like more light reaches his eye than the average human or something, because the camera seemed to be filming through murky water the whole time. It’s a trend for him as of late. I don’t get it.

So that’s the knee-jerk. More in the podcast tomorrow. For now, AFI Fest is off and running. Plenty going on throughout the week, all building to closing night and “The Adventures of Tintin” on November 10.