Film Review: “J. Edgar”

by Jason LeRoy on November 10, 2011

Leonardo DiCaprio and Armie Hammer in J. EDGAR

starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Ken Howard, Jeffrey Donovan, Dermot Mulroney, Josh Lucas, Denis O’Hare, Stephen Root, Ed Westwick, Miles Fisher

written by: Dustin Lance Black

directed by: Clint Eastwood

MPAA: Rated R for brief strong language

A lot of the criticism of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s sprawling 20th century epic about the conflicted, turbulent life and times of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio), has been about the film’s handling of the facts of Hoover’s life. This is the kind of film that brings out the know-it-all in film critics (not a difficult thing to do), and now everyone is Dr. J. Edgar Hoover all of a sudden. Many have accused the script, by Dustin Lance Black (who wrote the Oscar-winning screenplay for Milk) of soft-balling some of the more negative elements in Hoover’s story, and by erring overwhelmingly on the side of compassion in its presentation of this highly controversial figure.

But I am no Dr. J. Edgar Hoover over here. My knowledge of Hoover prior to seeing this film was basically limited to the rumors and allegations everyone knows (the cross-dressing, the latent homosexuality), and also this:

Consequently, I’ve been referring to this film as “Jedgar.” So, my point is that I will not be taking this film to task for any of its alleged historical watering-down. That’s not my concern. And I don’t think it’s necessarily Eastwood’s or Black’s responsibility to present an objective warts-and-all depiction just because they’re dealing with an historical figure. It is clear that there are elements of Hoover’s life that appeal to each of their sensibilities; Eastwood loves making a complicated, character-rich period piece steeped in moral ambiguity and measured complexity, while Black seems heartbroken by Hoover’s repressed homosexuality; his treatment of it here, as embodied by Hoover’s platonic relationship with his longtime companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, lit like Garbo with Bambie lashes and perfect teeth), is the most emotionally wrenching love story between two men since Brokeback Mountain.

With that said, it is far from a perfect film. Black’s script bites off a good bit more than it can chew; rather than zeroing in on maybe one or two specific moments from Hoover’s life and career, it attempts to convey nearly every meaningful development from 1919 until his death in 1972. It also uses a not-entirely-successful structure of having the story be told in flashback as Hoover dictates his memoir to an ever-changing series of handsome young agents (Ed Westwick and Miles Fisher among them).

The present-tense narrative begins in the early ’60s, as Hoover is tangling with the Kennedys and raging against Martin Luther King, Jr. Then, in the flashbacks, we learn (with generous narration from Hoover, who, to be fair, is telling his version of the story) about his rise through the ranks at the Bureau of Investigation, to which he was appointed director at the age of 29 in 1924, and his eventual role as the first director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation when it was founded (largely due to his efforts to expand his power and purview) in 1935; he retained this position until his death. We see his involvement with the Lindbergh kidnapping, the capture of numerous organized crime kingpins, his antagonistic relationship with the Roosevelts, his development of a centralized fingerprint file and other forensic science advances, etc etc.

It is by no means a small story. Rather, it is perhaps too much for a single film to convey effectively. The central structure, in which the film is split evenly between past and present with both stories unfolding simultaneously, is ill-advised and unnecessarily contrived. As for the scope, it feels rather like a less optimistic version of Forrest Gump, with Hoover gnashing and flailing his way through many of the 20th century’s biggest events among its most iconic figures. And just because Black and Eastwood aren’t interested in passing judgment on him, that does not mean the film doesn’t include damning material. It is especially direct in its depiction of his despicable actions to bring down Dr. King.

Still, the film also shows how Hoover’s life-long clashes with politically and socially subversive forces would have naturally made him at least suspicious of Dr. King, although it by no means lets him off the hook. As for other explanations into his character flaws, Black’s script goes old-school Tennessee Williams gay and blames it all on his imperious, cold, overbearing mother, Annie (Judi Dench, steely and intimidating). The most startling bit of dialogue in the film is delivered by Annie to her adult son when he confesses that he isn’t interested in women; like the rest of Hoover’s sad saga, it’s like the anti-It Gets Better. The most hopeful conclusion a contemporary gay audience could draw from this story is, “I guess it’s gotten better…?”

Which brings us to the subject of Hoover’s relationship with Tolson. This aspect of the film is remarkably well-done, handled with impressive sensitivity (and even sentimentality) by Eastwood. When Tolson is first introduced, we are a bit uncomfortable; Hammer appears to have been directed to play him as an old-fashioned Celluloid Closet dandy. And Black scripts a hilariously tongue-in-cheek sequence to show how little has changed in gay courtship over the years; when Tolson shows up for his first interview with Hoover to become an agent, the first thing he inquires about is Hoover’s workout routine. A moment later he’s fixing a window treatment, and before you know it they’re suit-shopping. I’m not even kidding. They later engage in the time-honored gay male tradition of mocking lesbians while secretly envying their emotional availability and openness.

But while these early scenes have an air of silliness and frivolity, the friendship endures and strengthens over the years, eventually leading to an explosive confrontation about the nature of their relationship; Hammer does his strongest work yet in this film, and his performance in the Big Fight scene is enough to warrant a Supporting Actor nomination. DiCaprio is also incredible throughout; having been tasked with playing an incredibly difficult character, he more than rises to the occasion, although he is both aided and saddled by quite a bit of makeup, particularly in the present-tense sequences. It is difficult to take seriously at first, as is always the case when recognizable actors are made to look much older, but eventually you stop noticing (sadly, this is not true of Hammer’s old-age makeup; he looks like a burn victim). The most natural-looking old-age makeup can be found on Naomi Watts, stuck in the thankless role of Helen Gandy, a woman Hoover briefly courted in his youth and then hired as his life-long secretary.

J. Edgar works more often than not. It is uneven and overstuffed, but its ambition is admirable, and it mostly succeeds in telling the ballad of the 20th century without losing its focus on the profoundly flawed unreliable narrator at its core. It is very much a Clint Eastwood film, bathed in dusky after-hours jazz, loving period detail, and grand old-fashioned storytelling. It may be sympathy for the devil to embrace Hoover in all of his defensiveness and paranoia, his enduring achievements and repulsive faults, but Eastwood and Black have crafted a surprisingly genuine and piercing depiction of the vulnerable underbelly of one of history’s hardest men.

J. Edgar is now playing in San Francisco.

Read Also:

{ 0 comments… add one now }

Leave a Comment

{ 1 trackback }

Previous post:

Next post: