Billed as a biopic of the FBI’s first and most powerful director J. Edgar Hoover, Clint Eastwood’s latest, J. Edgar, is really something else: a bodice ripper where the hysterical Victorian maiden is none other than the famed G-man. A driven man who built the FBI into the potent agency that it remains to this day, but who also warped it to fit his own agenda, Hoover is a ripe subject for biography. It is just too bad that neither Eastwood, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black or star Leonardo DiCaprio have any real interest in Hoover’s actual story.
DiCaprio’s involvement is the real mystery here. After playing Howard Hughes in The Aviator, why would he want to portray another 20th-century icon who beneath the legend is a twisted, crabbed individual with no clue how to behave with other people? For what Black has seized on are the rumors about Hoover’s homosexuality and his relationship with FBI Deputy Director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Rather than portray a love affair between two deeply conservative men at a time when the closet was not an option but a requirement, he opts for the notion of a deeply repressed Hoover in thrall to a domineering mother (Judi Dench) who warns her boy against becoming “a daffodil.” In this telling, Hoover is not just afraid of sex with men, he is terrified of women as well – he gets the vapors when Ginger Roger’s mother Lela (Lea Thompson) merely asks him to dance with her. He will primly hold hands with Clyde, but recoil at any other demonstration of affection, even verbal ones. These scenes are ridiculous, inviting unintentional laughs, but they also portray Hoover as pathetic when he was about as pitiful as your average rattlesnake.
Hoover’s life within the FBI gets the “lite” treatment. Much of it is told through the man’s eyes as he dictates an official history to a succession of agents sometime during the Kennedy administration, beginning with the post-World War I, anti-Communist Palmer Raids before the Bureau was even formed and continuing through the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and gangland raids during the Great Depression. In a kind of greatest hits approach, the film moves back and forth between that early era and that of the 1960s and early ’70s as Hoover’s power wanes (as witnessed when he clumsily tries to prevent Martin Luther King Jr. from accepting the Nobel Peace Prize) and Tolson’s health fails. The movie touches on Hoover’s confidential files that he wielded like a club, his penchant for wiretaps, and his contentious relationships with Presidents Roosevelt, Kennedy, and Nixon. But it entirely skips the ’40s and ’50s and glosses over the fact that Hoover’s targets were not just the mighty who were in a position to defend themselves but also thousands of everyday Americans who were destroyed by the FBI’s often illegal activity.
J. Edgar fails at history and fizzles as a drama. Black’s screenplay is a tone-deaf mess and most of the characters lack substance. Hammer’s Clyde Tolson barely registers except as the pretty boy who caught Hoover’s eye. Naomi Watts as Hoover’s secretary Helen Gandy fares even worse – there was absolutely no reason to cast an A-list actress in this nothing role. DiCaprio is miscast, altogether too callow to persuade as the brilliant, vicious political animal that Hoover was at the office and unable to transcend the ridiculousness of Black’s script when it comes to his private life. Eastwood tries to spackle over the film’s deficiencies with a somber coat of pure gloss, but what ails J. Edgar cannot be cured with production value.
– Pam Grady