John Edgar Hoover took over the post of Director of the Bureau of Investigations in 1924 (they wouldn’t add the “Federal” until 1935), when an Amherst graduate sat in the White House, the Chicago Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 18 years and race riots, union strikes and anarchist bombings made Occupy Wall Street look like child’s play. Hoover would remain in his office until the day he died 48 years later, when Tricky Dick ticked off entries on his enemies list, the Vietnam War just kept raging and the Chicago Cubs hadn’t won a World Series in 66 years.
So Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the extremely controversial government official has quite a bit of ground to cover, and at times “J. Edgar” too closely resembles a game of historical I Spy, all too eager to let you know exactly where you are in Hoover’s lengthy tenure: look, there’s Ginger Rogers! Charles Lindbergh! Bobby Kennedy! The first half of Eastwood’s eccentric film plays more like a greatest hits album than a cohesive work, making sure to hit all of Hoover’s career highlights, from rounding up and deporting foreign agitators during the Red Scare, to the gangland wars of the Depression, to an extended and inexplicably thorough rehashing of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. This is all fine and dandy, but audiences are presumably looking for something more than a Wikipedia entry.
The main culprit is a pretty clunky screenplay written by Dustin Lance Black, which lazily frames most of Hoover’s story as a series of flashbacks, narrated by the protagonist himself in an apparent effort to get “his side of the story” out there (in what format exactly Hoover plans to do this is entirely unclear; a book? Movie? Children’s TV series?). These voice-overs allow Black to merrily toss barrels of background information at the viewer in a pretty egregious violation of the principle of “show, don’t tell;” one senses that Black wants to make sure you know he did his homework.
The one “fact,” however, that most people nowadays can remember about J. Edgar Hoover is that he liked to cross-dress, so one can certainly admire Eastwood and Black’s attempt to give the influential figure a fair shake. For better or for worse, Hoover transformed the FBI from a redundant, toothless government agency into a lean, mean intelligence-gathering machine; though his methods were frequently unscrupulous and his suspicions were often, to be generous, paranoid (to be not so paranoid, fascist), it cannot be denied that Hoover was a man of great ambition, unfailing drive and mysterious personal complexity.
All of these characteristics are brought to life with vivid energy by Leonardo DiCaprio, who has turned into the most reliable actor around when it comes to tortured, enigmatic souls (see: “The Aviator,” “Shutter Island,” “Inception”). DiCaprio successfully overcomes the numerous obstacles set upon him by the screenplay, not only keeping the film humming during Black’s history lectures, but also navigating the dangerous waters of a vaguely Oedipal relationship between Hoover and his mother (the incomparable Dame Judi Dench). Though a last-minute attempt to include the cross-dressing bit feels forced, DiCaprio valiantly keeps the scene from becoming a cringe-worthy mess.
The rest of the cast has more difficulty navigating Black’s patchy structure. Judi Dench is of course Judi Dench, but Naomi Watts can’t do much with the woefully underwritten role of Helen Gandy, the woman who served as Hoover’s personal secretary for many years. Watts gives off the necessary qualities of compassion and loyalty, but “J. Edgar” never bothers to ask the most intriguing question of why exactly this woman remained so fiercely devoted to such an inscrutable man. Meanwhile, Armie Hammer (the Winklevii of “The Social Network”) is handed the challenging role of Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s deputy director and, as Eastwood and Black make quite definitive, secret lover. But, again, for the first half of the film, history trumps personal drama, and so Hammer does little more than smile suggestively and battle to project through some truly horrendous aging makeup.
The film (and Hammer’s performance) finally picks up some emotional steam in its second half, though not without a few more hiccups — Hoover’s portentous voice-overs for some reason never stop, even after his little trip down memory lane is over. But Black’s focus slowly begins to shift more and more toward the relationship between Hoover and Tolson, and we finally understand what drew Black to this story in the first place. The dialogue becomes more passionate, more poignant, as suddenly the film transforms into a tale of repression and unfulfilled love. In a way, “J. Edgar” serves as a very nice bookend to Black’s previous, Oscar-winning screenplay for “Milk.” That 2008 film told of a man who chose to come out of the closet, and in so doing became a symbol of inspiration and encouragement. “J. Edgar” shows the flip side, a man who repressed his desires and became synonymous with suspicion and paranoia.
As always, Eastwood’s direction is uncluttered, with the Hollywood icon’s only notable stylistic flourish being the decision to continue his perplexing war against color; this is something like five straight period pieces that Eastwood and cinematographer Tom Stern have shot in washed-out tones. I’m fairly certain that it was only film stock that was in black and white back in the 1930’s.
But it’s now 2011, the Chicago Cubs haven’t won a World Series in 103 years, and one has to wonder what exactly the grizzled, conservative-leaning Eastwood is getting at with this historical parable. Invoking the notorious FBI chief in such a generally favorable light at a time when national security is such a hot-button issue will certainly rouse a strong reaction in some circles. Does Eastwood wish to truly strip down the Hoover myth, or is he simply replacing it with another?