The impression I get from watching “J. Edgar” is that Leonardo DiCaprio likes the character, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black doesn’t, and director Clint Eastwood couldn’t care less either way as long as he can finish making the movie before suppertime. So here you go. Here’s that J. Edgar Hoover biopic you asked for, or at least something that meets all the technical requirements to be considered one.
Hoover served as director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation from 1924 (when it was just the Bureau of Investigation) until his death in 1972, worked under eight different presidents, defined and expanded the nature of American law enforcement, and was considered by some to be the second most powerful man in the country. His life and career could be the stuff of interesting cinema — as evidenced by the sequences in the movie that actually are interesting — but not without shaping the material into a cohesive story and committing to a vision. Eastwood seems content to spread a bunch of facts, rumors, and innuendos on the table and leave it at that.
The film moves back and forth between two general time periods in Hoover’s life: the 1920s and ’30s, when he’s making a name for himself, and the 1960s, when he’s recounting his life’s work to a series of FBI underlings tasked with transcribing his memoirs. (DiCaprio’s old-age makeup is pretty impressive, as these things go; the other few actors appearing in both eras do not fare quite as well.) A zealous pursuer of criminals and a strict believer in moral uprightness, Hoover lives with his mother (Judi Dench) and does not have friends or lovers. With his typical eagerness he clumsily proposes to a Bureau typist, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who politely refuses him and instead becomes his secretary for the next 40 years.
The kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s young son in 1932 motivates Hoover to seek greater powers for the Bureau of Investigation, and more resources to examine forensic evidence. He’s gung-ho about fingerprinting, which many others in law enforcement consider “speculative science.” His efforts to solve the case and prove his department’s worth lead to other high-profile victories, including the capture of prominent bank robbers like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly. In 1935, the department’s powers are expanded and the organization is renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover is its first director.
BUT WHAT ABOUT THE GAY STUFF?? you are asking. Funny, I was going to ask Eastwood the same question. Rumors about Hoover’s sexuality were commonplace throughout his life and especially afterward, when his money and estate went to longtime friend and fellow FBI agent Clyde Tolson. (Tolson also accepted the U.S. flag draped on Hoover’s coffin and was later buried near him.) The movie, perhaps not wanting to offend people on either side of the issue, hedges its bets. Tolson is played in the film by Armie Hammer, the tall, strapping Winklevoss from last year’s “The Social Network,” and his relationship with Hoover looks less like “Brokeback Mountain” and more like Burns and Smithers. Tolson clearly has eyes only for Hoover; whether (or how much) his affections are reciprocated is where the movie wants to have it both ways. In the movie’s view, Hoover was gay but celibate, in love with Tolson but unwilling to act on it or seek love elsewhere. Such a lifestyle is not unheard of, but does anyone really think it was J. Edgar Hoover’s?
And so we have a movie that keeps referencing the subject without really addressing it. Black’s screenplay, a mishmash of corny, overwrought dialogue, conveys that Hoover and Tolson are less-than-hetero by having them gossip cattily about common acquaintances, or by showing Hoover comically flustered when Ginger Rogers’ mother hits on him. The characters have one scene in which to tackle the issue head-on, and it turns into a farce of shouting and throwing things. (“Pick up that glass!” Hoover yells after Tolson smashes one against the wall. Tolson yells back, “I have no reason to do that!”) They fight, they make up, Hoover whispers “I love you” after Tolman has already left the room — it’s a masterpiece of melodramatic hack work. As controversial as it would have been to ignore Hoover’s personal life altogether and focus only on his work, that might have been better than what this film does, which is to focus on his personal life without actually saying anything about it.
The FBI material is more intriguing, and conveyed with much less ambiguity. The movie might avoid taking a position on Hoover’s sexuality, but it has no problem painting a clear picture of him as head of the FBI: paranoid, vindictive, narcissistic, and self-aggrandizing. He’ll start a “file” on anyone he doesn’t like, without even bothering to come up with a pretense. He does some despicable things to his enemies, and is only slightly less awful to those he loves. DiCaprio does his best to make the character human, but it’s an uphill battle against a screenplay that hates the guy. Add Eastwood’s apathy to that and you’ve got a long, pointless slog of a film.
C- (2 hrs., 17 min.; )