The best biopics don’t just narrate facts and timelines, but provide a peek into their subjects’ most private lives. The movie Lawrence of Arabia, for instance, delved wholeheartedly into its protagonist’s torn loyalties between his native Great Britain and Arab lands, and even dipped its toe in the waters of T.E. Lawrence’s enjoyment of killing, as much as it depicted the development of the Middle East in the 20th century. Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, J. Edgar, attempts to provide some insight into the man behind the FBI legend who, depending on one’s viewpoint and political suasion, was either a remarkable defender of America or a dreaded tyrant who persecuted his perceived enemies.
While at first the casting choice of Leonard DiCaprio as Hoover seemed, to me at least, unusual, it’s perfect. DiCaprio transforms his pretty boy looks into a credible facsimile of the real man, whose bantam-cock strut is ideal camouflage for self-consciousness, confused sexuality and, later, paranoia. The movie, which was written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk), skips back and forth in history, beginning with the elderly Hoover dictating his life story to what becomes a series of young hacks, and detouring through events like the Palmer Raids of 1919, the glory days of American gangsters, and, significantly, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, whose grisly outcome finally bore fruit for Hoover’s longstanding efforts to modernize and properly fund the FBI. The sheer scope of the narrative is impressive; the finished product, decidedly less so.
Much of the problem stems from Eastwood’s lack of focus. What exactly is he trying to say, or get us to consider? There are, for instance, eloquent statements, presumably by Hoover, about the need for collective memory to help guarding against threats to our national security, dropped against a backdrop of race riots and antiwar protests. If Eastwood is trying for irony, the attempt misses its mark. Hoover, perhaps because of the charismatic performer playing him, may seem monomaniacal at times, certainly hypocritical and, in the case of his obsession over the sex lives of the Kennedys and Martin Luther King, a few quicksteps into Crazytown, but we never doubt his belief in protecting the United States from harm. (This is a small triumph for DiCaprio, as Black’s script has Hoover talking more like an extra in the Twelve Oaks barbecue scene in Gone with the Wind, as opposed to a man of the 20th century.)
The few times that the movie crackles with something other than static are when Hoover’s beloved confidante (and oft-speculated lover) Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) spars verbally and, once, physically, with him. Tolson is enraged and heartbroken when he realizes that J. Edgar will never give in completely to his feelings, but he remains true and loyal, providing his friend much needed, if not heeded, reality checks regarding the limits of power, and Hoover’s penchant for glorifying his role in historical moments. There is a beautiful pathos to the men’s friendship as they become old and broken, which somehow barely escapes intact from the stunningly distracting horror-film facial prosthetics the makeup/special effects department came up with to age them. (It’s a wonder Hammer, who delivers a breakout performance, can speak clearly from all the goop his character is forced to wear.)
Visually, J. Edgar is infused with faded-out whites, grays and browns, like mementos in a worn scrapbook; the sight of a swath of royal blue fabric, near the movie’s end, gave me a minor jolt. The personification of this effect would be Naomi Watts, who, as Hoover’s longstanding and devoted secretary Helen, gets to murmur things like “Certainly, sir” and “I’ll see to it,” while enduring the same ghastly aging process. Early in the movie, Hoover proposes to Helen, only to find that she shares his single-minded career goals.
Despite the mesmerizing performances, the film is vastly uncertain. Its timidity in “going there” with respect to Hoover’s suspected sexual penchants and the parallel hypocrisy of him using similar secrets about others to destroy or control them leaves us with the nothing more provocative than the (decidedly disturbing) vision of Hoover donning his departed mom’s velvet and jewels. The scene in which Hoover summarily outmaneuvers RFK is probably meant to have us shuddering in disbelief, but instead makes us think, “Bobby Kennedy sure was a dick.” It’s surprising that such a seasoned, eloquent filmmaker as Eastwood has failed in such titanic proportions to provide a glimpse into Hoover’s soul. There are those who would argue that J. Edgar had none; but then why make him the subject of a biography?