Movie Review: J. Edgar
The Charlotte Observer
Nobody under 50 recalls J. Edgar Hoover, the bulldog who barked and snapped at the communist menace from the Bolshevik rallies of the 1920s through the Cold War of the late 1960s. He died in office in 1972, still the only chief of the Federal Bureau of Investigation up to that point, after 47 years as one of the most feared men in America.
So why did Clint Eastwood make a film biography now?
We’ve already heard the reports of a gay relationship with Clyde Tolson, the second-in-command who accompanied him on vacations and moved into his house when Hoover died. We’ve heard the rumors of cross-dressing. We’re aware of his paranoia, his long-past-the-point fear of Soviet “infiltration,” his slimy blackmail campaign against Martin Luther King. (And anyone who hasn’t probably won’t care.)
So what’s the motivation for the earnest, handsome, well-acted, unenlightening, workaday “J. Edgar” in 2011?
You can see why Leonardo DiCaprio took the title role: He gets to roar and knit his brow and snap lines off and tremble with repressed sexuality and tear up over the death of his controlling mother. It’s the kind of performance designed to get Oscar nominations, and Hoover ages convincingly from his mid-20s to 77. (His well-detailed makeup should certainly earn the Academy’s attention.)
But he’s framed in a clunky device: The ancient Hoover has decided to dictate his memoirs to a young FBI agent – a series of them, actually, for some inexplicable reason – and that’s the excuse director Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black have for an amble through the 20th century.
This device never works, because the young agents are meant to serve as some kind of national conscience. (It’s no coincidence that the last one looks like a double for Barack Obama.) They correct Hoover’s memories, argue that his claims don’t hold water, and challenge his racism and politics. The real Hoover would immediately have had them fired or transferred to East Noplace, Idaho. This one keeps trying to justify himself.
The narrative does justice to Hoover’s virtues. He figures out how to categorize crime data, hires scientific criminologists, gets Congress to turn the Bureau of Investigation (which worked for the Attorney General) into the independent Federal Bureau of Investigation in 1935. Then he recruits and trains dedicated, college-educated agents.
Though he obsessed over the Commie Menace all his life and failed to take steps against organized crime – possibly because Mafia figures were blackmailing him, a specter not raised in this movie – his patriotism and work ethic were never in doubt.
But Eastwood and Black, a gay activist who won an Oscar for writing “Milk,” stumble in depicting the relationship between Hoover and Tolson (the subdued, urbane Armie Hammer). The men touch each other a shade more than normal, even hold hands. Yet their one private screen kiss ends with Hoover barking “Don’t ever do that again!” and Tolson conceding. Are we to believe the two stayed unmarried, constant companions for decades without sexual consummation? Or is Eastwood too shy to take us beyond this limit?
The cross-dressing, too, occurs only once, under psychological duress after the death of Hoover’s quietly manipulative mother (Judi Dench): He wears her pearls and outfit to be close to her. Eastwood and Black may be telling us that the baffled Hoover simply didn’t know what to make of his sexual urges and stayed celibate as a result – which, if true, isn’t very interesting.
But none of this is, including the presence of Naomi Watts as Hoover’s unquestioning secretary, Helen Gandy. Her life might have been grist for a more compelling story: She was the idealistic, unmarried sidekick who executed Hoover’s illegal and insidious orders for four decades, losing her soul in the process. But that’s probably not a story Eastwood would want – or know how – to tell.