J. Edgar Hoover was a man about whom many strange rumors revolved. Some said he liked to dress in women’s clothing. Others that he had a more-than-friendly relationship with his second-in-command at the F.B.I., Clyde Tolson. Then there was the fact that on an early date with a Miss Helen Gandy he proposed. She refused, but became his life-long secretary. It was said he had file upon file of scandalous information on everyone he disliked or saw as a threat to American life – from Eleanor Roosevelt to Robert Kennedy to Martin Luther King. Clint Eastwood’s new biopic entertains all of these to a certain extent (some more than others). I’m not sure how Eastwood feels about Hoover in real life, but his movie is certainly sympathetic toward him. Certainly Hoover was and is one of the most hated men in American history. Many, myself included, see him as a gross violator of human rights – a cruel loon of that right obsessed with perfection and drowning in his own scrupulosity. He was a self-loathing cretin of the same cloth as people like Martin Luther and the modern-day arch-hypocrite Sandy Rios. Nevertheless, Eastwood chose (rightly so) to portray Hoover as a human being: a sad, lonely soul tortured by an obsession with the immaculate. In this way, J. Edgar Hoover becomes somewhat of a Shakespearian tragedy.
Eastwood’s picture is, as always, well made. The color has been dialed down to create a silver, nostalgic sheen to the film. J. Edgar Hoover is played by Leonardo DiCaprio. This performance reminds me of what is, in my opinion, the best work he’s likely to do from 2004’s The Aviator. The Aviator was, as you’ll recall, about another lonely and power-hungry man called Howard Hughes. It is a great movie, and DiCaprio was spot on as the eccentric billionaire. He plays J. Edgar in a similar fashion. He changes his voice, walks in a certain manner, and avoids seducing the camera as so many of his contemporaries in the star category do. As J. Edgar, however, DiCaprio has significantly less good material with which to work.
Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay harbors not an ounce of the perfection of the script for The Aviator. Black creates an adequate story and the dialogue is okay, but the writing isn’t the star. The story indulges in far too many flash backs and flash forwards. Hollywood’s unwillingness these days to tell any story, no matter how simple, in chronological order really starts to take its toll here. The fickle changes of time and place every five minutes make the film difficult to comprehend at times. We jump back and forth between 1972 as Hoover is helping to pen his biography and the twenties thirties and forties as Hoover rose to fame and power. The problem here – besides the loss of clarity in the plot – is that the business of 1972 is actually quite boring and dull compared to the excitement of watching the F.B.I. come to fruition with such infamous cases as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The movie would have done well to ax all of the nonsense in Hoover’s old age.
Still, Black and DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hoover is impressive. I imagine the real life Hoover must have been similar: a man obsessed with the unrighteousness of others, hell-bent on purging the world of vice and sin – an art-deco era Frollo if you will. He became so obsessed with the so-called “enemy within” that he forgot to distinguish between true evil and human weakness. A merciless moral pettifogger who, like most holy nitpickers, suffered from a horrible case of hypocrisy. He refused to let gays, blacks, or women serve as Bureau special agents, yet it has long been rumored (not without significant merit) that Hoover was in love with his F.B.I. second in command Clyde Tolson (played here by Armie Hammer). The picture avoids insinuating that Hoover and Tolson actually had a physical relationship, but rather that they both repressed their love throughout their respective lives. This is most likely pretty close to accurate.
Black also entertains the idea that Hoover kept mountains of personal files detailing the moral failings of various public officials whom he wished to blackmail into submission. These range from Martin Luther King to Eleanor Roosevelt. We do well to remember that it probably was not by courteousness that Hoover rose to such fame and influence. And then of course, what biopic about Hoover would be complete without some inclusion of his mysterious relationship with his life-long secretary played by Naomi Watts (who never gets enough work if you ask me). Even Hollywood avoids saying too much about their loyalty to each other. It’s a puzzle that has baffled historians since Hoover’s death in 1972.
Judi Dench, perfect as always, plays Edgar’s controlling mother. She’s quite a beast here, subtly hateful and filled with contempt at anything less than perfection to be found in her son. As awful as she is, she does love the boy and he loves her back, perhaps more than he should. Armie Hammer as Tolson plays well a man stuck in the closet. Hoover’s and Tolson’s repressed romance is kept quite muted. Only briefly does it extend past an overlong glance or an awkward meeting of the hands.
No, neither the acting nor the directing can be faulted in this picture. What can be faulted however is the make-up. The make-up in J. Edgar is excruciatingly bad. Distractingly bad even. Sinfully and unscrupulously bad. As Hoover and Tolson age, the filmmakers decided for some inferior reason to plaster layers and layers of putty upon their faces until their countenance is hardly distinguishable from one of Melville’s proverbial pasteboard masks behind which “some unknown yet still reasoning thing puts for the moldings of its features.”[*] DiCaprio starts to look like Yoda and Hammer begins to resemble a victim of a house fire. The paste slapped all over their faces possesses a bizarre yellow translucency, so if the sun glances on their mugs in the right way (or, rather, the wrong way) their cheeks start to shine like they are made of candle wax. I can’t believe a director like Eastwood, who certainly pays close attention to detail in his films, would let this far less than satisfactory aging technique slide in one of his films, especially one as otherwise well made as this.
Overall this is a pretty good picture. If one can get past the occasional tedious writing and freakish aging prosthetics, it is a perfectly good way to spend an evening. In effect it is a tragedy. It’s not a perfectly original concept (a powerful or famous person rises to the top only to find all the fortune in the world can’t buy happiness), but Eastwood executes it well. Maybe Hoover really was a sympathetic character. I’ll probably never see him as such, but I was willing to surrender my prejudice for two and a half hours. This movie at least tries to explain the mysteries of Hoover’s life in some form of drama. And for that, it’s worth it.
[*] Melville, Herman. Moby-Dick – chapter 36: The Quarter Deck