Movie Review: J. Edgar
By Matthew Huntley
November 22, 2011
Because J. Edgar Hoover was such a complex and intense individual, you’d think a biopic about him would exhibit those same qualities. He was such a fascinating person - compulsive; paranoid; anti-social; an alleged closet homosexual who lived during a time when it was unacceptable to be gay, especially in Washington, D.C. - that I can’t help but wonder how his life story would have been handled by a more eccentric and daring filmmaker than Clint Eastwood. Don’t get me wrong; Eastwood is a fine director, but he’s also a traditional one, and unless he was trying to be ironic, he should have approached J. Edgar’s story with a more vivacious and bold style, or at least one that was less straightforward.
Like most Hollywood biopics, this one begins in the final days of the subject’s life and flashes back to when he was most relevant to the world. It opens in 1972 as a gray-haired, feeble J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) enlists different members of the FBI’s human resources department to type his words as he recalls the major events of his nearly 50-year career as a federal government employee.
The film’s narrative strategy allows it to cover the broad strokes of Hoover’s life, and while it certainly suggests a lot about the man, it doesn’t really say anything definitive about him. But then, how could it? He was so guarded and cautious that we wonder if anybody really knew him. Did he even know himself? Perhaps the better question is, did he accept himself? Brewing within Hoover, according to the film, was a never-ending battle between the man he was, the man he wanted to be and the man other people wanted him to be. I’m not sure any film could make us feel like we know who this man was (in the end, he made it so nobody would knew his secrets, neither professional nor personal), but I do believe it could have been told better.
His story begins during the bombings of 1919, when anarchists targeted several members of the United States government, including Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson). The incident led to the infamous Palmer Raids, which saw over 500 aliens deported. Palmer and other members of the Justice Department were not only feeding but also succumbing to the Red Scare following World War I, a time when people feared their country was being overthrown by communists and radicals. For Hoover, it was an opportunistic time to show off his patriotism. Through the guidance of his overbearing mother (Judie Dench), he rose to director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and eventually pioneered criminal science and new developments like fingerprinting.
During this time, Hoover never had much of a social life. His only date was with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), whom he escorted to the Library of Congress to brag about the new card catalogue system he put in. Gandy wasn’t interested in marriage, but she would become Hoover’s personal secretary and they developed an unspoken devotion to each other that was always more familial than romantic.
Romance did eventually strike Hoover the day he met Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who would accompany him to night clubs, restaurants and vacation spots. Many speculated the two were lovers, but the film never confirms they consummated anything other than a deeply-rooted friendship. What it’s clearer about were the criticisms Hoover took from politicians and government committees. He was accused of overspending the bureau’s budget and attacked for his lack of field experience and exaggeration of the truth, especially when public enemies were arrested. For Hoover, work and fame were the two most important things in his life. He was exceptionally organized, industrious and intelligent in the workplace, although just as equally rigid and awkward in social situations. Given his conflicts and his experiences with key historical figures like Charles Lindbergh and Robert Kennedy, he certainly earned a place in U.S. history.
And yet, why does this biopic feel so empty and inconsequential? Perhaps it’s because Eastwood tells it too linearly and literally. It plays more like a history textbook than a dramatic narrative. The screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk) is too speculative in the way it approaches Hoover’s personal life and both he and Eastwood seem fearful to make their own statements about the man, even if they have to stretch the truth. The film is adequate but plain; it goes from start to finish without taking many risks or generating much fervor. It presents some facts, but facts you can get from anywhere. When it comes to narratives, we’d rather relish in things like mood, tone and characters. These can accompany facts, but there needs to be a point where we feel something. I didn’t feel much during J. Edgar.
That isn’t to say the film is bad. It is competently made and the performances by DiCaprio and Hammer are strong and convincing, but their talents could have been better utilized by a more edgy story. The film does mirror Hoover in two respects -it is overly guarded and cautious. But we’d rather it be exciting and audacious. It’s not the kind of historical drama that gets you talking or wondering, but rather reiterates what we already suspected. There was no doubt more to Hoover than J. Edgar lets on and I think the film would have been better off had filmmakers taken the chance to tell us what that was, even if they had to compromise the truth. It’s a narrative; they’re allowed.