J. Edgar *** ½
Directed by: Clint Eastwood.
Written by: Dustin Lance Black.
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson), Naomi Watts (Helen Gandy), Judi Dench (Annie Hoover), Jeffrey Donovan (Robert Kennedy), Dermot Mulroney (Colonel Schwarzkopf), Josh Lucas (Charles Lindbergh), Denis O'Hare (Albert Osborne), Damon Herriman (Bruno Hauptmann), Stephen Root (Arthur Koehler), Jamie LaBarber (Ginger Rogers), Lea Thompson (Lela Rogers), Amanda Schull (Anita Colby), Christopher Shyer (Richard Nixon), Ed Westwick (Agent Smith).
J. Edgar Hoover ran the FBI for nearly 50 years, making it over into his own image. When he took over, the Bureau of Investigation was mostly for show, got no respect, and was basically a toothless laughingstock. He quickly made it into the most powerful law enforcement agency in the country. His reign as its leader lasted through 8 different Presidents – both Democrats and Republicans – and even though many of those Presidents may not have liked Hoover, they were all scared of him. Soon after they took office, Hoover would be summoned to see them. He never left without a file in his hand, and no matter how adamantly the President opposed Hoover, by the end of that meeting, it was clear the President wasn’t going to fire him. If you were a public official, and you had a secret you didn’t want to get out, Hoover somehow knew that secret. And everyone has secrets. But as long as you didn’t cross Hoover, and gave him what he wanted, your secrets were safe with him.
Clint Eastwood’s wonderful new biopic of Hoover is the type of film you don’t see much anymore. It is a classy, old school biopic that looks not just as the public Hoover, but the private one as well. But unlike many biopics, there does not seem to be a fight between these two sides of Hoover. Instead, the private and public Hoover inform each other, and Eastwood daringly suggests that perhaps with Hoover, what you saw is what was really there. For all the rumors about Hoover being gay or dressing up in women’s clothing, Eastwood’s film is rather restrained. Suggesting that perhaps, Hoover died a virgin.
Played by Leonardo DiCaprio in an excellent performance, Hoover is a man who is sexually inexperienced and insecure. He is a man who is love with three people – none of whom he can have sex with. The first is his iron willed mom (Judi Dench), who he lives with until her death, who gives Hoover his immense ambition – always pushing him to be bigger and gain more power. The second is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who he proposes to after showing off how he organized the Library of Congress, gets rejected, and then hires her as his secretary – a job she would keep until Hoover’s death. The third is Clyde Tolson (Armie Hamer), who Hoover hires right out of law school, and quickly promotes him to be his second in command. It is Tolson everyone thinks Hoover had a sexual relationship with. After all, they were rarely seen outside of each other’s company – they ate together every day, they vacationed together, and when Hoover died, he left his estate to Tolson – who then moved into the house Hoover had shared with his mother all of those years. Eastwood’s film is basically a love story between these two, but it stops short of saying they ever actually had sex. In perhaps the film’s most telling, best scene, Hoover breaches the idea of his marrying a Hollywood starlet – and Tolson explodes in jealously and anger, leading to the one kiss the two share in the movie. It ends with Tolson telling Hoover “If you ever bring up a lady friend with me again, it will be the last time you enjoy my company”. Hoover never does, but just how far this relationship goes is left open to debate.
But Eastwood’s film is more than just that love story. It shows how Hoover’s private life, informed his public one. His ambition, his drive, his obsession with other people’s secrets all spring from his insecurities. Eastwood has made many films about the difference between who people see themselves, and how they really are – about men who deny their true natures before it explodes into violence. Think of Will Munny is Unforgiven or any of the male characters in Mystic River. Perhaps the reason many critics are not as found of J. Edgar as they are of some of Eastwood’s other films is because it never provides that catharsis – that release of violence. Hoover keeps everything locked up in him right up to his final scene in the movie. I’ve read several reviews who think that Eastwood’s film is too long and slow – but for me, the opposite is true. I wanted this film to be longer, to connect the dots a little more, and allow the characters who are not Hoover a chance to breathe. As it stands, everyone in the film who isn’t Hoover are presented only as he sees them. They fail to be true characters. Judi Dench, as great as she is, is just one step away from Carrie’s mother here. Naomi Watts is pretty much wasted, walking in and out of rooms carrying files. Faring better is Armie Hamer, but even he seems to have been cast because of his physicality. He looks beautiful in his early scenes, and Eastwood and his cinematographer photograph him with the love that Hoover obviously had for him. But to a certain extent he remains a cipher. Perhaps all of this is because Hoover’s life was so big, that no one film could contain it. Already, the film jumps back and forth in time from the 1920s and 1930s when Hoover is building up the FBI (and the story told is Hoover’s version, which will eventually be shown to be only half true) and the 1960s and 1970s, when Hoover is fading from power, and trying to hold on. The 1940s and 1950s are not mentioned at all. The film can only give us the tip of the iceberg of the number of lives Hoover, and his secret files, helped to destroy.
But even with these flaws, Eastwood’s film is still fascinating and engrossing. It benefits hugely from DiCaprio’s performance, which truly is one of the best of the year. He talks a mile a minute, not wanting to slow down and give anyone else a chance to speak, not wanting to be contradicted. And yet, there are scenes that let that façade slip – like the brilliant one when he seems to be effortlessly charming with a group of women right up to the moment one of them asks him to dance, and he becomes a stammering idiot. This lasts even when he gets home and tells his mother “I don’t like to dance, and I especially don’t like to dance with women”. Her response is to tell him about a boy they once knew who everyone called Daffy – short of Daffodil – who killed himself. “I’d rather have a dead son, than a daffodil”, she tells him. Even though DiCaprio spends half the movie drenched in old age makeup (which it must be said, is some of the best old age makeup I’ve ever seen in a movie), he captures Hoover brilliantly – his insecurities, his sexual repression, and yes, his humanity.
Eastwood’s film reminded me of Oliver Stone’s brilliant Nixon (which ironically, presented Hoover, played by Bob Hoskins, as a flamboyantly gay man). Walking into Nixon, especially since it was directed by a so called “left wing nutjob” like Stone, you would expect the film to present him as a villain. Instead, Stone finds sympathy for Nixon, even while lying bare just how bad he really was. Eastwood accomplishes something similar with J. Edgar. Hoover was not a good man – he destroyed countless lives with his files, as held onto petty grudges forever – but Eastwood finds sympathy towards him. This is one of those rare films that keeps expanding in my head after watching it. You forget many films by the time you reach the parking lot. Not J. Edgar. The more I think about the film, the more I like it.