The problems start almost as soon as the lights dim in Clint Eastwood’s eagerly anticipated biopic, “J. Edgar”. J. Edgar Hoover, the iconic American lawman, director and overseer of the Federal Bureau of Investigation is late in his life, elderly, puffy in appearance, gruff in tone, and passionately dictating to his lead biographer, Agent Smith (Ed Westwick), the events which led to his appointment as a top ranking official in the Justice Department. We catch him almost in mid-sentence it seems, as he jumps right into running through the details surrounding the storied Palmer Raids of 1919, a strategy used to snuff out perceived left-leaning anarchists after the conclusion of World War I and during the height of the Red Scare of Communism in America. From the opening moments, we are scrambling to catch up to the facts and details Hoover is sharing; details perceived to be basic and primary for most viewers, but presented in a hazy and unframed context.
Directed by Clint Eastwood, “J. Edgar” falls victim to many of these moments. Context is fleeting and the screenplay from Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) feels akin to flipping randomly through a biography of Hoover’s life – or worse, a textbook. Black and Eastwood have opted to tell Hoover’s story in a non-linear cross-cutting style which, either because of some surprisingly shoddy editing by Eastwood’s long-time collaborators Joel Cox and Gary Roach or Eastwood and Black not being on the same page, “J. Edgar” is undoubtedly well-intentioned, but amounts to nothing more than a turgid, meandering 137 minutes.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the titular role and delivers a fantastic performance, embodying Hoover from his early 20’s, until his eventual death in 1972 at the age of 77. DiCaprio’s work here is impressive as he dissolves into the role with an exuberance and dedication that iconic actors past and present have defined their careers by. DiCaprio has little choice but to carry this film from the opening bell to the last, as he is in virtually every scene. As our narrator of sorts, his voice, his mannerisms, and his cadence set the tone here.
Eventually, we maneuver through the beginnings of the Federal Bureau of Investigation (initially the Bureau of Investigation) and see Hoover awkwardly attempt to woo the woman who eventually would become his loyal and dedicated personal secretary for decades, Helen Gandy (an underutilized Naomi Watts). As he expands the Bureau, he seeks to find a deputy director. An exhaustive interview process includes, and eventually leads to the hire of, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a man Hoover had met at a law graduates dinner event and someone he exchanged cards with. As Gandy notes in Tolson’s application, he has a unique disinterest in women, a detail that Hoover fails to conceal his admiration for.
As Eastwood continues to bring us back and forth through the 7 decades he covers with Hoover’s life (1919 through 1972), we see Hoover’s relative highs and lows and deeply conflicted and stunted emotional state. When criticism is levied upon Hoover that he and his men are not tough enough to stand up to the advent of organized crime in 1930’s America, Hoover is shown as pulling out the guns himself and strong-arming bad guys. Hoover routinely called for files to be commissioned on anyone and everyone he fell out of favor with or did not like. And for a meticulously prepared and detailed man, naturally there were countless files kept on numerous Americans, both known and unknown. Never explored on screen, but still intriguing to ponder, Hoover even kept countless personal files on himself.
Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black devote a large amount of time to the infamous 1932 Lindbergh kidnapping case – “The Crime of the Century” as it was dubbed, where wealthy aviator Charles Lindbergh’s 20-month old infant son, Charles, Jr., was kidnapped and found murdered near the Lindbergh home. Although Lindbergh eschewed the help of the Federal Government and utilized shady connections to try and negotiate with the alleged kidnapper, Hoover’s role in the investigation is shown to be significant, as it would appear that the kidnapping case allowed for an expansion of the FBI, with Hoover, and the work of his team, cited as a main reason why the Federal Government eventually endorsed the idea that the kidnapping of another person would be forever classified as a federal crime.
But doubling back on itself, we are frequently reminded that Hoover also had Clyde Tolson at his side virtually every minute. Hoover, a tireless workaholic, agreed to never miss a lunch or dinner with Clyde and routinely, they took in horse races and vacations with one another. Never apparently spoken about at the office, certainly everyone must have suspected that there was more than a professional relationship between Hoover and his Deputy Director. And yet with Tolson by his side, Hoover would publicly attend high profile dinners, awkwardly trying to flirt with Hollywood starlets and even, at one point, he entertained the idea of finding a Mrs. Hoover.
I share all of this detail because the moments between DiCaprio’s Hoover and Armie Hammer’s Tolson are often the only genuine connective sequences in the film. As I was whisked through this moment to that with Hoover and his operating of the FBI, I became increasingly disinterested. Eastwood never dials in behind the makeup, literally and figuratively, and we never get a true sense of why Hoover was the way he was. At times, he is presented as something of a Mama’s Boy, always seeking out the approval of his mother, Annie (Judi Dench), and reduced to nothingness if he feels he disappointed her in any way. Problematic to the film’s overall tone is how the scenes between DiCaprio and Dench play flat; save one devastating scene where Annie reveals to her son that she may not be as loyal to him as he and we have been led to believe.
That the best moment in the film is a gasp-inducing gutpunch that questions Hoover’s heterosexuality circles back on what Black writes extremely well and Eastwood allows to be the centerpiece of his film. As terrific as Leonardo DiCaprio is here, Armie Hammer, so memorable as twins Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss (a.k.a “The Winklevi”) in last year’s “The Social Network”, is every bit up to the challenge of standing alongside DiCaprio and matching him scene for scene. Hammer infuses Tolson with the perfect mix of loyalty and dedication, suppressed love and passion, and a willingness to accept a chaste existence with the man he adores. In my mind, you cannot praise DiCaprio here without lobbying a great deal of accolades upon Armie Hammer’s work as well.
Technically, the film’s most notable and obvious effect will be the makeup utilized to age the main characters of Hoover, Tolson, and Helen Gandy. I go back and forth. At times, the makeup work is impressively realized, on DiCaprio especially. The work with Watts is subtle and believable as well, but for Hammer’s Clyde Tolson in his later years, the results are jarring and noticeable. One pivotal scene involving Tolson at a horse racing track looks so alarmingly bad that I was completely taken out of the film’s late-in-life sequences between Hoover and Tolson.
Eastwood frames many scenes with his now trademark use of shadows and light versus dark. His contemplative piano-keyed score drifts in and out at just the right moments. The costume design by Deborah Cooper is winning and captures the impeccable style imposed by Hoover on himself, Tolson, and his staff, and Gary Ferris’ set direction is top notch. You are never going to be disappointed watching at or looking at an Eastwood motion picture and this is another fine example at Eastwood’s still thirsty attentiveness to detail and atmosphere.
And yet what do we ultimately have here? A muddled, meandering unfocused story which leaves a viewer no less able to discern anything about who J. Edgar Hoover was as a man. Less is spent on his inner drive and desire to “go after” people than should be permissible and his legendary partnership with Joseph McCarthy and ties to McCarthyism, his constant worry about the threats of “disloyal” Americans and masquerading foreigners bringing a harmful will to his country, and his flat out despising of Martin Luther King and the Civil Rights Movement is all glossed over to such a degree that nothing sticks. I know little more about J. Edgar Hoover after watching the film than I did going in. And frankly, I might now be more disinterested in him than ever before.
There’s no insight to be found here whatsoever, except that Hoover seemed to caught in a nagging rip-and-pull between who he was publicly and who he perhaps wanted to be privately. I can start to understand how torturous an existence that must have been for Hoover, drawing on people close to me who feel they must live in the proverbial closet, but I am more inclined to feel sorry for Clyde Tolson in that regard than I ever would for Hoover. That Clint Eastwood and Dustin Lance Black could not channel their extraordinary talents in such a way that allowed me an avenue in to understanding the inner workings of J. Edgar Hoover is frustrating. That they failed to make me feel any emotional connection about their subject and his remarkable life, is alarming.
In its final presentation, “J. Edgar” is a squandered opportunity and stands as one of 2011’s most staggering disappointments.