J. Edgar ✮✮1/2
by Glenn Lovell
Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” starring an unlikely but game Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover, America’s most notorious snoop, is a pretty turgid affair. Not quite as turgid perhaps as Robert Redford’s “The Conspirator,” but alongside Eastwood’s other fact-based pageantries (“Flags of Our Fathers,” “Changeling”), it seems dour and talky, a musty museum piece that all too seldom sparks to life.
Structured by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) as a series of self-serving interviews for an official Bureau memoir ‒ “It’s time this generation heard my side of the story” ‒ this biopic spans 53 years, touching with varying success on the salient events in Hoover’s life, including the Emma Goldman trial, the founding of the FBI, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, JFK’s and Martin Luther King’s assassinations. It opens in 1919, introducing Johnny Hoover as an eager-beaver G-Man-in-training who counted Bolsheviks and anarchists in his sleep, and ends in 1972, when the Director of the FBI, on the outs even with Nixon, succumbs from one too many vitamin highballs in his suspiciously fussy Washington bedroom.
The warts-and-all portrait is pretty much you’d expect. It paints the picture of a man who was a workaholic, possessed a mania for organization (he helped implement the Library of Congress’s card catalog and lobbied for a centralized fingerprint bank), and made Nixon look like a piker when it came to dirty tricks and abusing civil liberties. In the later years, we get the caricature of Hoover we’re come to know and loathe, the porcine, sweaty paranoiac whose idea of a fun time was listening to Kennedy and King sex tapes.
What is new ‒ and easily the most interesting aspect of this movie ‒ is bachelor-boy Hoover’s lifelong relationship with a handsome, flirtatious law school grad named Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). If this film is to be believed, Deputy Director Tolson was the second greatest love of Hoover’s life. The first? His mother, of course. While a tad on the polite side, Hoover’s Freudian infatuation with Mom (well-played by Judi Dench) may remind some of Norman Bates’ condition in “Psycho.” Indeed, moments after Mother’s death, Edgar retires to her bedroom, dons her necklace and dress and begins castigating himself in her voice.
When I first heard about this project, I assumed it was going to be directed by Martin Scorsese, who had cast DiCaprio as another iconic nutter, Howard Hughes. Scorsese would certainly have brought more dark-tinged energy to the proceedings. In Eastwood’s hands, the material occupies a safe middle ground between exposé and unrequited romance. Far too late, we realize that much of what has been recounted has been a pack of lies. Why not plant these seeds earlier? This could have lent the narrative an intriguing “Rashomon”-like quality.
As played by DiCaprio ‒ much of the time under padding and aging makeup ‒ Hoover proves, if not huggable, at least a multidimensional figure, a driven, tormented soul eventually caught in his own web. He’s at once a visionary, coward, gadfly, xenophobe, bully (who easily intimidates this film’s spineless Robert Kennedy), closeted gay and appalling publicity hound. This is the opposite of an Oliver Stone smear job: a careful, rigorously fair-minded depiction of a man who deserved less … and, in a bizarre way, more.
J EDGAR ✮✮1/2 With Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas. Directed by Clint Eastwood; scripted by Dustin Lance Black. 136 min. Rated R (for profanity, some violence, adult themes)