Sorry, Clint Eastwood did not make my day. A movie likely to displease both the right and the left, Eastwood’s Hoover biopic J. Edgar is so self-consciously even handed – or rather, evasive – that its impact is more diluted than daring. And seemingly counting more historical and personal omissions than inclusions. Which is hardly forgiving, considering this wooden and stilted production’s punishing running time of nearly two and a half hours.
More tell than show, J. Edgar skims over the profusion of milestones that coursed through the conflicted when not controversial life of Hoover, who reigned rather than served as FBI director through eight presidents and over 48 years. And as solidly fire-proof, so to speak, even continuing past the mandatory government retirement age of seventy right up until his death at age 77. Presumably as the historical record appears to indicate, because he had compiled so many dirty secrets about sitting presidents, or at least insinuated as much, that they feared antagonizing him.
So what is to be made of Eastwood’s latest vigilante with a badge this time around, a screen portrait which is so crowded with events across the decades, yet ultimately rings so hollow. Well first off, any fanatical voyeur like Hoover, would predictably be obsessively secretive about their own personal affairs. So it should take not just any run of the mill sleuth of a filmmaker to penetrate that wall. Which would necessitate someone nearly as invasive a gumshoe as Hoover, and Clint is just not up to the task. And with an uncommon reticence for such a normally brash director, that comes off as less concern about ruffling audience feathers, than offending Hoover himself.
As for Leonardo DiCaprio’s miscast turn as J. Edgar, let’s just say there’s much to be desired. Which is not exactly Leonardo’s fault. Much too young and on the soft side to comfortably inhabit the grumpy old tyrant, DiCaprio ends up impersonating an idea of Hoover, rather than the man. And monotonously reciting rather than emotionally relaying lines, in a voice he’s far too consciously intent on dropping several octaves throughout.
Then there’s history itself that gets short shrift. In his early years as a rookie lawman, Hoover is depicted as engaged in a wildly focused mission to rid the world of leftists. Yet little background information is provided about the fierce labor struggles and brutal repression back then that incited their revolts, which are portrayed in the film as unmotivated acts of senseless terrorism. As for any information about Hoover’s own reign of terror – and his instigation of mass deportation of radicals simply for their ideas, the Blacklist that destroyed so many lives and precipitated suicides, the questionable execution of the Rosenbergs, and the vicious COINTELPRO campaign and assassinations of Black leaders – Clint has essentially wiped all that away from history.
As for Hoover, his personality defects which tend to veer between the narrow range of eccentric and egotistical – and silly rather than sinister as with his involvement in self-serving radio publicity stunts and cereal box promos – are rather inexplicably blamed on Mommy as usual. With Dad, who was committed to an insane asylum, as a no-show in the movie. And Hoover’s ironic patriotism as opposed to his draft dodging, just not considered significant enough to include in this questionable mix.
On the other hand, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black – who penned the Harvey Milk biopic Milk – delivers a not exactly objective appraisal of his protagonist, and J. Edgar’s at least officially top secret relationship with staffer Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Making it no secret in his own right here, of the disdain many in the gay community harbor towards the ambiguity of both bisexuals – as Hoover seemingly was as indicated by his affairs at the same time with Hollywood stars – and similarly sexually uncommitted individuals like Hoover who appeared to refuse to come out of the closet.
Okay, so there is a brief moment in J. Edgar where he dons his dead mother’s dress and pearls. But maybe in a possibly Norman Bates moment, he just misses her. And there’s enough determined ambiguity, to go both ways.