Director : Clint Eastwood
Screenplay : Dustin Lance Black
MPAA Rating : R
Year of Release : 2011
Stars : Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert F. Kennedy), Geoff Pierson (A. Mitchell Palmer), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover) and Ed Westwick (Agent Smith)
In a recent interview, Leonardo DiCaprio said that he is drawn to roles “When I can’t immediately define the character,” when “there’s an element of mystery to it and still a lot to be explored.” Little wonder, then, that he jumped at the chance to play the title role in Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, a probing biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial long-time director of the FBI who was largely responsible for modernizing forensic investigation, but was also a vindictive, paranoid, egotistical tyrant who often abused the system he helped create in order to maintain his power through nearly five decades and eight presidencies. He was also, according to rumors that have circulated since the 1940s, a latent homosexual, an element of his life that plays a central role in J. Edgar. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing Gus Van Sant’s Milk (2008), can now lay claim to having penned films about one of the most famous openly gay politicians and the most famous closeted one.
Black’s screenplay skips back and forth in time, using Hoover in the mid-1960s (when he was in his 70s) dictating his highly slanted memoirs to a series of FBI agents in his office while pursuing his relentless vendetta against Martin Luther King, Jr., as a kind of framing device for the story. This framing is only partial, however, as there are numerous sequences speculating on Hoover’s private life that he never would have admitted, much less dictated to an agent. Interestingly enough, it is these portions of the film that we are meant to take as the most truthful (what are not directly spoken by the man himself), rather than Hoover’s various claims to fame, many of which are blatantly revealed to have been fabrications at the end of the film. Black thus cleverly uses the familiar tropes of the biopic against itself to blur the lines between verifiable fact, elaboration and pure speculation; it all ends up feeling the same.
As Hoover, DiCaprio gives an expectedly powerful performance, as he consistently finds the balance between Hoover’s thick political armor and the confused, one might even say scared, man hiding inside. Often acting beneath pounds of frequently unconvincing old-age make-up that nonetheless successfully draws out attention to the connection between the decay of Hoover’s body and the decay of his morals, DiCaprio finds the human being in the myth, loved or loathed. Although he is frequently abusive, controlling, and even cruel, the feeling we walk away from at the end of J. Edgar is that Hoover was never entirely sure of who he was, which is why he focused so much of his focused, workaholic life on forging an indelible persona as a patriot and crusading crime fighter. He could control his professional life and shape the world in which he worked, primarily by amassing secrets about his political enemies and anyone else who might try to exert influence over him (including various Presidents and attorney general Robert Kennedy), but he was never able to make his life outside of the spotlight make sense. As head of the FBI, his identity as a Bolshevik-fighting, red-blooded American patriot who fought with Congress to have more power to protect the people was clear. In his own home, where his feelings were fundamentally at odds with his public persona, he was never sure of who he was. He was, in a word, achingly vulnerable.
Dominated by his mother (Judi Dench), Hoover remained a lifelong bachelor who was intensely private about what little life he led outside his office at the FBI. When he awkwardly attempts to propose marriage to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a new secretary at the bureau who will later become his lifelong personal assistant, there is an air of the pathetic and the desperate to it, as if he is trying to will himself to do something simply because he knows it is expected of him. Similarly, there is a telling scene where Hoover is regaling several women at a posh nightclub with his crime-fighting stories, but when one of them asks him to dance, he becomes demonstrably perturbed and can’t leave quickly enough. Throughout J. Edgar it is what is left unspoken than we feel most painfully.
The nightclub scene leads to the film’s most poignant moment, when Hoover confides to his mother that he doesn’t “like to dance,” and more specifically, he doesn’t like “to dance with women.” It is one of the few moments that Hoover comes close to articulating his sexual desires, but it is immediately closed off with his mother’s chilling reminder of one of Hoover’s childhood acquaintances, a homosexual nicknamed “Daffy” who eventually killed himself out of shame. “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,” she tells him coolly, before teaching him to dance, a strange Freudian moment of simultaneously enforced normality and abnormality. It is no wonder that, when his mother finally dies, Hoover dons some of her jewelry and clothing, the closest the film comes to making good on the pulpy, long discredited rumors that he was a closet transvestite.
Much of the film centers around Hoover’s longtime relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a young lawyer who joins the FBI and soon becomes not just Hoover’s “number two man,” but his best friend and constant companion. The majority of the rumors about Hoover’s homosexuality revolve around his relationship with Tolson, and J. Edgar confirms those suspicions via the less and less ambiguous looks exchanged by the two men and a long-gestating confrontation in a hotel room in which Tolson attempts to break through Hoover’s self-imposed sexual barriers and Hoover recoils ever deeper inside his own repression. As much as Hoover is portrayed as a villain here, he is also unmistakably framed as a victim of his own ambitions and confused feelings, and we are frequently encouraged to feel for, rather than scorn, him.
Ever the pragmatic and non-fussy director, Clint Eastwood moves J. Edgar through the paces, its “greatest hits” momentum perturbed only by the nonchronological staging of events and the revelation later in the film that certain scenes are reflective not of actual history, but rather of how Hoover wanted them to be seen. Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern bathe the film’s images in the murky amber hues of aged leather, which has become Eastwood’s favored shorthand for the first half of the 20th century (see also Flags of Our Fathers and Changeling). Unfortunately, this monochromatic visual scheme makes the film itself feel heavier, slower, and murkier than it is, as virtually every scene has the same look and feel, regardless of what is happening. In this way Eastwood’s expediency and stylistic practicality does not always serve him well, although it is hardly enough to completely derail what is otherwise a fascinating and frequently moving look inside the tortured inner world of a man who was instrumental in shaping the political rhetoric of the 20th century and beyond.
Copyright ©2011 James Kendrick
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