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Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar". (Keith Bernstein)
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover in "J. Edgar". (Keith Bernstein)

Movie review

J. Edgar: Was he a hero or a villain? Add to ...

  • Country USA
  • Language English

What a sprawling, befuddling, fascinating, frustrating mess of a movie. Usually the tautest of directors, Clint Eastwood has gone all slack here, allowing his subject to get completely away from him.

To be sure, J. Edgar Hoover is a big subject and a tough nut to crack. As head of the FBI through eight elected presidents and nearly a half century of American democracy, Hoover behaved like a one-man Kremlin, as subversive as the subversives he hunted. Eastwood admits as much in these frames, but seems to have no strong opinion on the matter.

Instead, he gives Hoover a very long leash, leaving the little bulldog to bark boastingly and trot across the decades relatively unscathed. It’s hardly surprising that J. Edgar would lionize himself; what’s shocking is that J. Edgar lets him, with only modest attempts at correcting the record.

The script is by Dustin Lance Black, whose previous work for the big screen ( Milk) and the small ( Big Love) has done nothing to prepare us for this rambling affair. His conceit is to have the movie unfold from Hoover’s point of view, as a semi-reliable narrator. To that end, we first see him as an old man during the Kennedy administration, dictating his memoirs to an eager clerk.

Actually, we’re seeing Leonardo DiCaprio deploying a near-Southern accent and buried beneath a metric tonne of age-inducing latex. DiCaprio’s portrayal will prove impressive throughout, but his splendid performance doubles as a problem. Simply by casting a movie-star hunk in the title role, the guy is elevated, endowed with a physical grace he didn’t possess. Hoover, who knew a thing or two about manipulating opinion through the media, would have stamped his approval.

The memoir gimmick gives the picture its broad structure, cross-cutting between the relative present (Sixties, Seventies) and various points in the distant past. The earliest is 1919 when, with Red Emma Goldman on her soapbox and violence in the streets, Hoover finds his anti-Commie credo: “My eyes were opened.” So, a wide-eyed hireling in the Justice Department, he toils to get Goldman, and several hundred others whose crimes were their ideas, deported. As a reward, at the tender age of 24, Edgar is appointed to lead the new Bureau of Investigation. His beloved mother (Judi Dench) couldn’t be prouder.

There, he promptly sets out vetting prospective agents for moral stains in their character or, worse, facial hair on their upper lip. There too, he hires his life-long secretary Helen Gandy (a barely recognizable Naomi Watts), soon followed by his life-long companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). With the help of the woman, Edgar begins his practise of assembling “confidential files” on the private lives of the powerful; with the man, he kick-starts his own private life of shared dinners and endless gossip.

Flash-forward again to the Sixties. The dynamic trio have all aged together and, courtesy of the makeup department, are now similarly layered in latex – in certain light, they look like a Night of the Living Dead convention. Nevertheless, Edgar remains hard at it, butting heads with Bobby Kennedy, digging up dirt on Jack, and doing his vicious best to discredit Martin Luther King along with that most insidious of domestic threats – the Civil Rights Movement.

Back to the past, where the Twenties give way to the Thirties, Commies to gangsters, and then the “crime of the century” – the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby. Oddly, this is what Eastwood lingers on, clumsily dramatizing several aspects of the case, all with the apparent purpose of extolling Hoover’s law-enforcing achievements (expanding federal jurisdiction, advancing forensic science, centralizing finger-printing data). While we’re pondering this, the G-man records in his memoir: “It’s important that we re-clarify the difference between hero and villain.”Yet that’s precisely what this film fails to do. It doesn’t convincingly portray Hoover as either a tragic hero with flaws, or a villain with redeeming humanity.

Consequently, despite DiCaprio’s best efforts, the character never comes alive enough to elicit our sympathy or our disdain. Without that investment, the so-called emotional scenes play out like a dry well. The death of his mother, for example. Hoover is bereft, and Eastwood uses the occasion to touch on the cross-dressing rumours. In his grief, Edgar dons Mommy’s necklace, then her frock, and collapses to the floor in tears. Yes, we feel nothing but the urge to laugh – the sequence is risible. So is another crucial moment when Clyde, upset about Edgar’s professed dalliance with an actress, dukes it out with his pal, then plants a bloody kiss smack on his mouth.

On this issue, the film is discreet about the extent of Hoover’s homosexual feelings – he certainly had them; he may or may not have acted on them. Since Hoover himself lacked any such reservations about exposing the sexual habits (real or rumoured) of others, perhaps Eastwood’s non-committal approach reflects a commendable higher standard. Unfortunately, it also reflects a non-committal picture. The script tries to make a virtue out of not judging Hoover, asking us to do the job instead. That might be fine, but only if we’re given a reason to care. We aren’t.

Hoover died in office during the presidency of his star pupil Richard Nixon. They shared the same love of illegal bugging, dirty tricks and domestic spying, plus the fervent belief that “information is power.” Well, maybe in war and politics, but not in the movies. Like its subject, J. Edgar is chock full of random information; unlike him, it’s woefully lacking in any real power. The man built a Kremlin in Washington while branding himself a patriot; the film raises a red flag only to hide under it.

J. Edgar

  • Directed by Clint Eastwood
  • Written by Dustin Lance Black
  • Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench
  • Classification: PG

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