You’d think Clint Eastwood would be the right guy to direct a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. After all, who better to tell the story of the 20th century’s most influential law enforcement officer, the man who wrote the rule book on fighting crime only to disregard those rules when they prevented him from getting his man, than Dirty Harry himself? Or, to be less obvious, what would the man responsible for “White Hunter Black Heart,” “A Perfect World” and “Million Dollar Baby” — movies about men who defied authority, be it Hollywood, the law or God — bring to the life story of the man who held authority over the country for nearly 50 years? Alas, Clint Eastwood’s stately biopic “J. Edgar” is a frustrating experience. For nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes we are held captive by the possibility of a major revelation or insight into a man whose obsession with cataloging every single detail of a person’s personal and professional life foretold the collapse of privacy. We get hints, intimations and suggestions of darker urges that shaped Hoover’s behavior, but nothing concrete about the man’s personality, and no attitude whatsoever toward his actions. Eastwood mistakes vagueness for ambiguity and puts us in the position of being armchair psychiatrists.
Working from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black and starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, J. Edgar certainly has a high-end pedigree, but the film is so concerned with being “refined” that it sacrifices momentum. Opening with Hoover dictating his autobiography in an effort to set the record straight, the film shows promise, even if the investigative flashback structure it employs should’ve been retired a long time ago. It inevitably leads to a then-this-happened-then-this-followed-by-this rhythm that can be a grind. But Hoover’s origin story is fascinating, especially as he tries to convince his boss Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) to invest in new sciences like fingerprint analysis. We see how Hoover’s crusade against communist radicals led to his being put in charge of the F.B.I., which he would remake into his own image of clean-cut American righteousness. We are introduced to the three key people in his life: his mother Annie (Judi Dench), who molded her Edgar into a model of properness; Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his loyal secretary; and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his most loyal…friend?
Then…we wait, patiently, for a theme or pattern to emerge. One never quite comes through. By trying to condense a 50-year history into a 2 1/3-hour runtime, “J. Edgar” becomes a highlight reel with some of the best parts edited out. Hoover’s war against ’30s gangsters like Baby Face Nelson and John Dillinger is reduced to more or less a montage. Hoover during World War II? Nothing. Hoover during McCarthyism? We get one line of dialogue dismissing McCarthy as an opportunist. The movie’s greatest flaw is how it does not deal with Hoover’s clashes with the Kennedys, especially Bobby. Hoover’s hatred of Bobby Kennedy was legendary, and for a movie about his life to omit that part is just wrong. Instead we get too many scenes of Hoover’s mother laying on guilt trips about what he must do. This is Psych 101 screenwriting territory, way below the thinking of Eastwood and his collaborators.
The most obvious (and possibly most entertaining) approach to this material would be to treat it like one of those ripped-from-the-headlines ’30s Warners pictures, complete with gossip and innuendo. (We get a charge in one scene when we see famous bits from “The Public Enemy” being shown to a cheering audience.) The other approach to the material would be to concentrate on just a few defining moments. It is extremely difficult to condense a man’s life into an extended runtime. “Malcolm X“ did it, but then again it was focusing on 20 years, not 50. (It still managed to bring it up to the present with that startling final scene of Nelson Mandela addressing a classroom.) “Nixon“ also did it, but Oliver Stone, unlike Eastwood, has a singular gift for innovative visuals and editing that gives his movies drive. The model for a movie like “J. Edgar” is something like Danny DeVito’s criminally underrated “Hoffa.” Like “J. Edgar,” it also uses a flashback structure, butscreenwriter David Mamet doesn’t bother with trying to cram a man’s lifeinto a conventional narrative. Hoffa is simply presented as-is, and we take in how those around him react to his actions. By doing that, we come away understanding Hoffa’s achievements as a labor leader, but also understand that his ego and quest for power led to him eventually losing sight of his original intentions. (Interestingly, the highlight of “Hoffa“ is the extended sequences where he squares off with Robert Kennedy.) A typical scene in “J. Edgar“ is of two people sitting in a darkened room talking around what is on their minds. If you’re going to make a movie consisting of these kinds of scenes, you’d better make sure they have something interesting to say. Or, at the very least make clear what it is they are “not” saying. (Tom Stern’s drab cinematography doesn’t help matters. While not as bad as his work in Eastwood’s “Changeling,” it makes you not want to see the color brown for at least three months. His lighting is like Gordon Willis minus texture — or soul.)
At 81, Eastwood has spent the last 10 to 15 years making movies where he seems to be re-examining not only his own image, but the image of stoic, non-verbal men, He’s been deconstructing the notion of masculinity before men were told it was okay to get in touch with their feelings. The idea that men needed to do whatever it took to get the job done was being undercut by the (necessary) assertion of feminine and racial equality. Eastwood’s best films are about men reeling from change and how they either reject it or are humbled by it. In “Million Dollar Baby“ (his best film in the last decade), boxing trainer Frankie Dunn is constantly questioning God’s plan only to get a comeuppance when he demands unquestioning faith in his training methods from his fighters. A “Perfect World“ saw Eastwood deconstructing the Western showdown by setting a generational clash of law and disorder on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. (“A Perfect World“ is a far more complex breakdown of Western myths than the somewhat overrated “Unforgiven.”) “White Hunter Black Heart” told a thinly fictionalized version of John Huston’s recklessness while making “The African Queen,” with Eastwood playing Huston as a filmmaker learning that trying to exert the same kind of control he has on a movie set in everyday life can lead to self-destruction. Even less successfulefforts saw Eastwood attempting to re-think history, considering if his generation got things wrong. His two-part World War II saga “Flags of Our Fathers“ and “Letters from Iwo Jima” had moments of great irony hinting that Eastwood might’ve learned something from “Saving Private Ryan;” too bad, in the end, he wound up buying into the myths of the Greatest Generation. “Hereafter“ found Eastwood confronting mortality; too bad the movie got all New Age-y in its final sequence. And in the disastrous “Gran Torino,” Eastwood directed himself in what felt like his farewell performance as Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, a longstanding racist forced to realize he was wrong about everything; too bad the movie played Walt’s racism for laughs and came off like a recruitment film for the Tea Party.
Every movie Eastwood makes seems to be in preparation for his next one. Taking on the life of J. Edgar Hoover suggested Eastwood was ready to tackle one of the most polarizing figures of his generation, and by doing so confronting the two topics he’s often accused of shying away from: sexuality and race. There is evidence that Eastwood is more than capable of handling adult sexuality; his performance in the New Orleans cop procedural “Tightrope“ saw him playing a man grappling with unhealthy sexual urges. Unfortunately Eastwood has given his critics more than enough opportunities to accuse him of insensitivity with ugly portrayals of women and gays in movies like “The Rookie“ and “Sudden Impact.” His track record for handling race is even spottier, with black characters being subservient yet equal. (Don’t even bother bringing up “Bird.”) But with “J. Edgar“ it would seem Eastwood would have to tackle these issues head-on. He doesn’t. He blinks. Hoover’s sexuality is treated as a case of repression crossed with the smothering of a mother from hell. Screenwriter Black, who wrote the terrifically insightful “Milk,” seems to have written the script of “J. Edgar“ from a 2011 perspective, as if he’s saying, “Isn’t it too bad Hoover wasn’t allowed to live in a more open society where his sexuality wouldn’t have been an issue?” That’s a great notion but it’s one that Eastwood and DiCaprio are not operating from. The movie winds up working at cross-purposes, and would’ve been better served by simply dumping all the scenes with Hoover’s mother or just relegating her to one early sequence. (That’s why biopics like “Citizen Cohn“ and “The Aviator“ work so well.) That extra time could’ve been used to strengthen one of the other more interesting relationships, like Hoover’s connection with his longtime companion Clyde Tolson. As it stands, Hoover’s relationship with Tolson comes awfully close in some scenes to resembling that of Mr. Burns and Smithers. They’re like the first bromance. They’re so chaste in their affection that when they have their big fight, the scene seems to come out of nowhere. When they kiss, we laugh, not out of nervousness, but because there’s no passion or preparation. When Hoover takes out Ms. Gandy on a date and she rebuffs his advances, we don’t know if her rejection sours him on women or if he’s thrilled that she’s as dedicated to her work as he is. On a basic psychological level the movie doesn’t even bother with suggesting that Hoover wanted to sleep with his mother, Ms. Gandy or Tolson. We think that’s what’s going on, but we’re never certain. (If we were to go by the movie, Hoover apparently died without ever having sex.)
And Hoover’s racism is transformed into his crusade against communist radicals. His battles against civil rights leaders are reduced to his attempts to ruin the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he’s listening to a recording of King having sex, we wonder if Hoover is jealous of such a blatant act of sexuality. The same goes with his taping of President Kennedy. Is Hoover envious because they’re having all the fun? And why does he hate communists so much? We never hear him articulate an argument. WhenBobby Kennedy tells him that our enemies are now foreign, not domestic, he makes perfect sense. But Hoover disregards his warnings, suggesting a deep-seeded paranoia of everyone. There’s a whiff if Jack D. Ripper to his campaign against Dr. King. He believes King to be a communist threatening to contaminate the soul of the American people. (I was going to write “our precious bodily fluids.”) A racial slur by Hoover’s mother plants the notion early on that he is someone who parrots his mother’s views, but we never hear him use a racial slur himself.
But there are moments when you feel the movie starting to come alive. All the scenes involving Charles Lindbergh and the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby crackle with tension. (Unfortunately these scenes are broken up by that damn flashback structure. You spend a good part of the time doing your own mental re-editing of the movie.) This entire episode should be the centerpiece of the movie. It should both showcase Hoover’s achievements and his weaknesses. His defiance of his superiors to employ new techniques of gathering evidence in order to apprehend those responsible for the Lindbergh kidnapping plays like the origin story of “C.S.I.“ The case also shows Hoover’s eagerness to present the appearance of justice without bothering with the thorny details of degrees of guilt or innocence. DiCaprio gives another strong performance, all the more impressive considering he has to fill in the blanks of the script. He’s able to suggest what isn’t on the page through a glance or a sigh or his old-man shuffle. (The aging makeup would seem to have a lock on the Oscar.) There are moments where DiCaprio gets you to feel Hoover’s loneliness and repressed rage. A startling scene late in the movie when Hoover is dictating a letter that he hopes will intimidate Dr. King into declining the Nobel Peace Prize suggests the darker movie this could’ve been, while also pointing out the weakness in the character of Ms. Gandy. It’s the only time she seems to question her “Edgar” if he’s doing the right thing. Is this really the first instance of someone questioning Hoover? I doubt it. Very little is known about Hoover’s secretary, but that shouldn’t prevent Eastwood and his team from speculating on the nature of their relationship. The same goes for Armie Hammer’s characterization of Tolson. There’s a hint of Tolson assuming the role of submissive to Hoover, but it’s never followed through. Hammer, coming off his triumph as the Winklevoss twins in “The Social Network,” gives one of those supporting performances you find on the IMDb page of big movie stars; it’s a good credit to have at the start of your career, as proof you’re willing to tackle “risky” material. He’s captivating and, like DiCaprio, does his best to fill in the blanks. And Josh Lucas gives his best performance since “Wonderland” in the small but vivid role of Charles Lindbergh.
In the end, “J. Edgar“ is neither defensive nor offensive. It’s the definition of “respectful,” and that’s something you’d never expect from a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. There is one scene towards the end that does manage to create a sense of discomfort. A montage of late ’60s turmoil (including the assassination of Dr. King) is juxtaposed with Hoover narrating that if we don’t remember history we’re destined to repeat it. For a few fleeting moments, the movie seems to be offering a justification of Hoover’s tactics. The scene suggests that the upheavals of the Vietnam era were a result of Hoover not being allowed to keep an eye on everyone. That’s a provocative stance that the movie doesn’t attempt to defend or refute. (A better movie would pick a side. A great movie would suggest Hoover was both right and wrong.) That scene is topped by a brief scene of Nixon being informed of Hoover’s death; the president’s immediate response is like an outtake from an Oliver Stone movie. It’s moments like these that “J. Edgar” flirts with playing dirty.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.