John Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) was the most powerful man in American law enforcement for nearly half a century and served under eight presidents. He also led a very secret life and the facts and fictions of that life are explored in Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar.”
Over the years, director Eastwood has shown a penchant for old-fashioned movie making with such films as “Unforgiven,” “Million Dollar Baby” and “Gran Torino.” Old-fashioned is not a bad thing and “J. Edgar” is an old-fashioned biopic. But, unlike the others, this last by the iconic Eastwood is also stodgy. Well made, but stodgy.
Leo DiCaprio is a fine and capable actor and he puts his all into the young and elder characters of Hoover. However, the script, by Dustin Lance Black, reads like a Wikipedia article that is spiced up with speculations and fleshes things out about Hoover’s sexual predilections. The highlights of The FBI chief’s early life are told through Hoover’s memoirs as he dictates them to an underling. We see the past through his eyes and from his memory of the tumultuous early days of the Bureau of Investigation (before the “Federal” moniker was added in 1935) and things may not have been as they seem.
The elder Hoover, with DiCaprio under heavy makeup, kept reminding me of Phillip Seymour Hoffman, a distraction that kept repeating as the film flashes forward to Hoover’s last years as FBI Director for Life (he died, in office, on 2 May 1972). These later years are dominated by his relentless hunt for Communists, his battles with his boss, Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy, and his unbridle hatred for Martin Luther King Jr. The film divides up pretty equally between young and old Edgar with the young Hoover shown as a mama’s boy for mom Annie (Judi Dench). This segues into the lifelong relationship between Hoover and his assistant and longtime companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) that bridges career beginnings and ends.
Acting is solid, but mostly uninspired, across the board with Naomi Watts doing a yeoman’s job as Hoover’s career-long personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Hers is not a flashy performance but one that helps anchor her boss’s zealousness. Armie Hammer is wooden as Hoover’s possible lover, Clyde Tolson, in their early years and is further hampered by the age makeup, of the later years, that made the actor’s face an emotionless mask. The rest of the cast are mostly second-tier actors and I appreciate Eastwood not falling into the usual all-star casting.
Techs are good but, like the film overall, stodgy. The period design, covering the 1920s and 30s, is well done and the money was well spent on cars and clothes. But, looks alone do not make a film. It has to have heart, too, and I do not think “J. Edgar” has one. I give it a C+.
In 1919, a young F.B.I. agent gathered Communist leaflets from the ground outside the bombed home of his director, Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson, "Changeling"), which were later used to convict the perpetrators. Seven years later, the boy known as Johnny (Leonardo DiCaprio ) was promoted into the chief job where he championed a strict moral code for his agents but bent the rules for the President and his own agendas, where he championed the use of science and forensics to crack cases while wrapping his own persona in myth. The name he chose to go by was "J. Edgar."
Octogenarian director Clint Eastwood hit a behind-the-camera career pinnacle from 2003's "Mystic River" through 2006's "Letters from Iwo Jima," then took a dip with "Changeling" held fast with "Gran Torino" and "Invictus" and began to slide again with last year's "Hereafter." There is certainly nothing wrong with Eastwood's old-fashioned approach to filmmaking, but his latest, "J. Edgar," is both stodgy and flawed, a series of flashbacks alternating with a present in which Hoover dictates his biography while trying to protect his beloved agency during the political firestorms of Richard Nixon's presidency. We hear DiCaprio's Hoover before we see him and he sounds like an actor trying to do a Kennedy with a slight Southern lilt. He works his way gradually into the role but by the time he owns it he's under a pile of makeup (Armie Hammer's Clyde Tolson suffers worse, appearing practically embalmed in the character's later years). Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black's ("Milk") idea of using the unreliable narrator for Hoover's history before long time companion Tolson outs him in the film's last act is a good one, but he cannot let go of the Lindbergh case to the point where it seems like not much happened for entire decades.
The first person to openly question him, Agent Stokes (Josh Stamberg, TV's 'Drop Dead Diva'), posits that Hoover's anti-radical thrust is more about investigating ideas than crimes and gets publicly sacked for his 'stache-wearing attitude. In the present, speculation about Hoover's private files begins when RFK (Jeffrey Donovan, "Changeling," TV's 'Burn Notice') questions the man about his wire-tapping activities as they listen to a tape of JFK's assignation with a woman from East Berlin. When Attorney General Kennedy attempts to exert his power by demanding that the transcript stay with him, Hoover neatly turns back to advise him to let his brother know he has a copy in his own files for 'safekeeping.' Hoover's insecurities come through with his irrational jealousy of his own agent, Melvin Purvis, the man famous for getting Dilinger, which he partially makes up for by shining in the light of Hollywood celebrity.
But when Ginger Roger's mother (Lea Thompson) asks him to dance in a nightclub, Hoover's panic is almost comical. Johnny idolizes his mother Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) and her values shape his entire life (Black uses her death to get Hoover into a dress - his mother's - to satisfy the infamous one person account of having seen him in drag at a cocktail party). She admonishes him on his behavior and demands he learn to dance. Intuiting the worst, Annie advises 'I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.' And here, of course, in subtext, is where Hoover's dichotomies are best defined. Eastwood was coy talking to the press about his film's homosexual content, but everything revolves around it. Of course, there's Tolson, a man who clearly did not fit the young Hoover's criteria for the F.B.I. but one he went after nonetheless and made his number 2 (Tolson's first activity in the film? Flitting about the menswear department outfitting his new boss...) Sure, it's suggested Hoover thought of marrying twice - first to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) from the agency's secretarial pool. When she tells him her career is her life she becomes his personal secretary and it isn't difficult to see the suggestion that Gandy herself was homosexual - we last see her holding that file about Eleanor Roosevelt's alleged lesbian affair. Later, Hoover's consideration of a film star turns Tolson apoplectic and the idea is dropped.
The film is at its best when considering how Hoover's sexual identity shaped him because that's really the only emotional analysis. Early hints of a Howard Hughes-like (whom DiCaprio also portrayed in "The Aviator") germophobia are dropped. The nickname Speedy derived from Hoover's speech post-stutter is brought up, but we don't hear people calling him that.
The film's production is erratic as well. Shots in office corridors lack visual interest. The use of inaugural parades to note the passage of time are awkward, crosscuts of DiCaprio as if he's on a set with his same POV of passing carriages and Cadillacs. Eastwood's piano tinklings sounds like those we've heard before and are entirely inappropriate for the material. Only Naomi Watts is properly aged with makeup, and the actress works more depth into her character than is on the page. Judi Dench looks the same age when Johnny's just a small boy as she does at her death.
DiCaprio seemed entirely wrong to play this role and so it's to his credit how much possession he's taken. But he's also continually put into the same bulldog reaction, jaw thrust forward, eyes blazing. The actor can drive, but the vehicle's not sound.
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