Directed by Clint Eastwood
Screenplay by Dustin Lance Black
Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover
Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy
Judi Dench as Annie Hoover
Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson
How long is J. Edgar? 137 minutes.
What is J. Edgar rated? R for brief strong language.
Memory Is A Funny Thing…
Following the satisfactory but bland Hereafter, Clint Eastwood is back in the director’s saddle doing what he seems to love best – a brooding meditation on how dark and weird the human soul can be. Tackling the enigmatic life of longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, his new film J. Edgar runs long, cuts deep, but manages to remain oddly compelling all the way through.
Leonardo DiCaprio dives into the title role with his usual determination, and once again crafts a compelling portrait which may or may not be authentic, but certainly has a convincing ring of truth to it. The same can be said for the major cast – Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, and Naomi Watts – though some of the supporting players go in for cheap caricatures. Robert Kennedy is the most egregious, with Nixon running a close second. If only Barry Pepper could have reprised his scene-stealing turn as RFK in the recent Starz Channel Kennedy family miniseries. Alas, we have to make do with less.
Atmosphere, performance, and smoldering drama are J. Edgar‘s main strengths, to which the structure and pace of the film do not quite measure up. Constant leaps from present to past and back again may strengthen thematic parallels between different stages of Hoover’s life, but as a whole this movie feels narratively disjointed. Fortunately, DiCaprio is in virtually every frame of the film, giving his all to keep our attention for over two hours. He succeeds.
Armie Hammer, a little over a year out from the success of The Social Network, is wonderfully charming in the role of Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s fiercely loyal right-hand man and rumored lover. Fey, immaculate, and sensible, he is a perfect foil to the graceless Hoover. Bolstering him on the other side is Helen Gandy, played economically but effectively by the lovely Naomi “Where Has She Been?” Watts. Gandy was Hoover’s secretary for something like half a century, and according to this film the only person besides Clyde Tolson and his own mother whom Hoover trusted. It was she who kept the private files which allowed Hoover his uncanny “leverage” over public figures in times of turmoil.
We get to hear a lot about those private files, and all the other major allegations about Hoover’s long and bizarre career as director of the FBI. As with Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s The Aviator (also starring DiCaprio), this film paints a portrait of genuine brilliance tarnished by major emotional hang-ups. That may sound glib, but Oedipal anxiety is a shorthand device that almost everyone can understand. We have no need to see little Edgar as an impressionable child, compiling his obsessive worldview. His interactions with Mother Hoover as an adult illustrate the hold she has always had on him, and so each of her offhand remarks about faith, society, sex, and proper conduct oneself are implied to have deep roots in his own psychological makeup. Dame Judi Dench shines as usual in this elegantly creepy role.
Hoover’s tragic flaw seems to be fear, instilled from an early age, of just about everything. Beginning with the unknown quantity (circa 1920) of Communist menace, it grows to encompass anyone he deems a radical – that is to say, a threat to the status quo, for good or ill. He later transfers this anxiety to the civil right movement, which is about the time when even his inner circle start telling him that he is losing his grip on reality.
Despite his perilously skewed and immobile lens on society (if you have a designated driver, try taking a drink every time he says the word “Communist” or “radical”), Hoover acts out of sincere sense of patriotism. Without social graces, friends, or any real prospects outside professional life, he cultivates a powerful law enforcement bureau with the ruthlessness of any good and protective parent. Though giving plenty of screen time to Hoover’s paranoia and casual approach to blackmail, this movie also takes time to demonstrate his crucial contributions to the government’s well-being. From re-organizing the Library Of Congress card catalog, he uses his sway as FBI director to push such “crackpot” ideas as a centralized fingerprint database and making the kidnapper into a federal offender.
Granted, Hoover puts these ideas into practice for mostly personal reasons, but both have far-reaching positive effects. The Lindbergh baby kidnapping is a major plot thread, as is the “public enemies” manhunt, and Hoover’s desire to heighten his role in both led to major advancements in the bureau’s organization.
The framing narrative shows Hoover dictating his career to a series of biographers near the end of his life, and just when we are all starting to wonder how much of it can possibly be true, director Eastwood beats us to the punch. In an interesting twist, the movie calls its own account of history into question, and that sustained sense of ambiguity keeps the movie surprisingly balanced. J. Edgar affords its audience the dignity of drawing their own conclusions.
The problem with a narrative spanning so many years is that we spend far too much time seeing DiCaprio and Hammer in very severe “old man” makeup. Actually, Hoover’s makeup is not so bad once you get used to hearing DiCaprio’s youthful voice coming from it. With the right vocal styling he could make a pretty decent Truman Capote act out of it. Clyde Tolson ages very badly and waxily by comparison, ultimately resembling someone dressed as Clint Eastwood (age 81) for Halloween. It might have been more graceful to let the director himself step in for this role. Had they limited the elderly scenes to dimly lit rooms in measured doses, it would have been far less distracting.
If anything, J. Edgar is too even-handed for its own good. Those who revile Hoover may want a more lurid tale of hypocrisy and depravity. Those who defend his memory might be shocked and uncomfortable at how far things go. But are we not all (mostly) adults here? Clint Eastwood has been in the storytelling business long enough to know how to deal with a polarizing legacy. It definitely plays like a film made by an older man. One can almost imagine Eastwood sitting with Tommy Lee Jones and Eli Wallach watching the film over brandy and cigars. It is by no means a perfect film, but as biographical dramas go it is one of the strongest entries of the past several years.