Somehow, director Clint Eastwood and gay screenwriter Dustin Lance Black have managed to turn the life of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most fascinating and controversial figures in American history, into a leaden and heavy-handed movie. Despite some fine performances, this muddled biopic of the founder and long-term director of the FBI fails to bring Hoover and his inner circle to credible cinematic life.
“J. Edgar” traces the personal and professional life of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his days as an ambitious young agent (the Palmer raids of 1919) to his death in 1972. Hoover is flanked by sidekick Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer), his longtime male companion and No. 2 man at the FBI, and his devoted secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Both Tolson and Gandy are carefully courted by Hoover, and remain loyal to him despite 50 years of emotional abuse and manipulation and increasingly ruthless and bizarre behavior in office.
In one of the strongest scenes (visually and dramatically), Hoover proposes to Gandy on their third date. He takes her to the Library of Congress where he has helped to develop a new card catalogue system. As he runs through the stack in search of the volume she has requested, he tells her of his vision for bringing new scientific methods (like fingerprinting and handwriting analysis) to the field of criminology. She is smitten by his charisma and his passion for justice, yet wary of his lack of concern for individual privacy. She rebuffs his awkward advance and rejects his sudden proposal of marriage, yet accepts his offer to become his personal secretary. He seems relieved. DiCaprio and Watts play the scene with great sensitivity and unexpected charm and Eastwood directs with a lively pace and visual style that is lacking from the rest of the movie.
Gandy returns the favor by arranging the first private meeting between Hoover and Tolson. Hoover is reviewing applicants for his new Bureau, insisting that his agents conform to the highest standards of personal decorum and professional zeal. Although Tolson shows neither of those qualities, Hoover decides to interview him after Gandy mentions that the recruit shows “no particular interest in women.” Tolson is hired on the spot and soon accepts Hoover’s proposal to become his No. 2 man at the FBI.
Tolson also becomes the No. 1 man in Hoover’s life. In Eastwood and Black’s telling of the story, their relationship remains emotionally intense yet physically chaste. At Tolson’s insistence, the two men eat lunch and dinner together every day (except when Hoover is capriciously punishing Tolson), yet they share only one kiss. This kiss comes after a bloody fight, sparked by Hoover’s confession that he has been seeing a Hollywood starlet. A frustrated Tolson lashes out at Hoover, pins him to the ground and kisses him. Hoover breaks away and makes it clear that their physical relationship will never go any further. They will hold hands and even share the occasional breakfast, but that’s the limit.
Black’s writing in this fight scene draws on every Hollywood cliché in the book — the coded banter between the two men (they have some bitchy things to say about Lucy Ricardo), the glass smashed against the wall, Hoover’s anguished shouts of “don’t leave me!” to a retreating Tolson, and Hoover’s whispered declaration of love — after Tolson has left the room. DiCaprio and Hammer invest the scene with great conviction, but even Hollywood veteran Eastwood is unable to do much with this melodramatic and almost laughable mess.
Clichés also plague the underwritten character of Hoover’s domineering mother, played with great gusto by Judi Dench. She fuels his ambition, buys him fashionable suits, shows off her newest dresses, preens at Hollywood openings and fusses over his food and figure. She also condemns his relationship with Tolson. When Hoover confesses, “I don’t like to dance – with women,” his monstrous mother tells him the cautionary tale of “Daffodil,” a man who was beaten for wearing a bonnet. She declares, “I’d rather have a dead son that a daffodil for a son.”
With references to James Cagney’s performances as both gangsters and G-men, echoes of Perry Mason and Tennessee Williams, and language that reflects contemporary debates over national security, personal liberties and marriage equality, Eastwood and Black try to place Hoover’s life in a broader political and cultural context, but their attempt falls flat.
We see glimpses of his passion for justice and his delight in using dirty secrets to blackmail others, but we never understand what makes Hoover tick or why Tolson and Gandy would remain devoted to him for so long. Black’s screenplay moves back and forth through time in an interesting way (although the actors seem somewhat mummified by the age makeup), but the characters remain sketchy and much of Hoover’s career remains unexplored.
Eastwood’s direction is slack and even the cinematography and soundtrack (usually strong points in an Eastwood movie) are flat and uninteresting. J. Edgar Hoover’s turbulent life is a great American story; perhaps another creative team will do him justice someday.