Upon leaving J. Edgar, neither my buddy nor I could nail down the point of what we just watched. Was it a hard look at the man? The film takes a vague stance on Hoover’s actions, and there’s not a very well-defined character arc—Hoover starts out as a stiff prima donna and ends up pretty much the same. And it’s certainly not an action flick.
The best I can surmise is that it’s a look at the relationships of someone who closed himself off from all human contact. Maybe that’s the reason the film’s titled “J. Edgar”–the first name is closed off while the second is used. There’s a lingering shot of the first time Hoover signs his name as such, so it’s obviously important, but then again the context is Hoover opening a new account in a men’s clothing shop. Anybody’s guess.
Hoover is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, using a slightly affected accent that’s not quite convincing but isn’t distracting. He goes through a number of emotions, and I suppose plays that part well, but I think the weakness is in the writing: He’s just not a very compelling character. Of course he’s underplayed and quiet—that’s the point, right? But even a dull character well played is still a dull character.
The movie opens with the elder Hoover dictating his autobiography to what will become a string of typists. We see his early years as an agent disillusioned with the shoddiness of police-investigation techniques. We meet his mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench), a women he’s obsessed with pleasing but who seems more concerned about her son’s career than the man himself. We see him makes his bones during the Palmer Raids, the 1919-20 crackdown and deportation of extreme leftists.
And we meet the other two most important people in Hoover’s life. The first is his secretary Helen Gandy, whom he proposes to after showing her his cataloging system at the Library of Congress. She declines, but offers to be his lifelong personal assistant. Helen’s played by Naomi Watts in what I think is the best performance in the film. DiCarpio justly gets the praise, but I think Watts has been overlooked—especially because she’s playing the same role as DiCaprio.
The advantage is that she’s a good deal more interesting. Gandy is the mirror of Hoover: Stiff, dedicated to her work beyond to the point of personal happiness; the reason Hoover proposes to her is that she is the same person as himself, and, when he proposes, Hoover says essentially the same thing.
The other is Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s platonic boyfriend. They never actually sleep (or slept) together. That’s the purpose for him being there, but the screenplay never seems sure what to do with him outside of that. Hoover can’t have a relationship with him, so the character just kind of sits there. A lot is and has been made of their questionably sexual relationship (the script, as everyone has already pointed out, was written by Milk author Dustin Lance Black), and the film suggests that Hoover was a closeted homosexual. But really, who gives a sh!t?
The whole storyline is there simply to be there. Hoover’s not an interesting character, and so there’s not much emotional investment in his sexuality, repressed or otherwise, nor does it give any particular insight to how it affected other avenues of his life. Or maybe it does, I don’t care. The whole thing is just wedged in there and uses such moronic tropes so cheesily (*spoiler* the kiss, the clothing, the last conversation *spoiler*), that it feels almost offensive. Still not as bad as Hammer’s old-man makeup.
What’s most interesting about the film is its exceedingly objective attitude toward Hoover. Eastwood is a pretty famous libertarian and can’t have liked Hoover’s policies. Granted he does go out his way to trace the development of federal laws that allowed Hoover to operate, and yet there seems to be a deal of respect for the man, as if Eastwood is trying to come to terms with the fascist Hoover, whose heart may have been in the right place but was nevertheless one of the most reprehensible men of the 20th Century. So it’s not a fawning biopic, nor an outright condemnation—but it is an aimless and at times sloppy one.
The framing device of Hoover dictating his autobiography is clever, as it somewhat frees itself from a totally linear narrative and can tell stories in two time periods simultaneously. That means we’re not groaning when it becomes 1939, and we know we have 30-some more years of this (oddly, the ’40s and ’50s aren’t covered). However, it does have an annoying and jarring tendency of switching to another story just as the one we’re watching is getting interesting. I particularly enjoyed the chronicles of Hoover’s early life pursuing anarchists, but no sooner would the scene draw me in then we’d be back at his office in 1971.
Similarly, we’re supposed to see things from Hoover’s perspective, but then some of the more tender moments of his relationship with Tolson are shown. There’s no way that the Hoover we’ve been staring at for the past two hours would ever have mentioned this in his autobiography.
This is B-, or even C-Grade Eastwood. And I think the closest comparison is Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil, a film I enjoy maybe a bit too much for its drifting story. Both have their charms, and there were many parts of J. Edgar that I enjoyed, but both are also a half hour too long. One-hundred thirty-seven minutes is a long time to devote to a film that doesn’t seem to have much of a point, and had it not been for the guy sitting immediately in front of my friend sharting his pants and the two of us suppressing laughter for the last 25 minutes, it would have been painful. (And after the film, the handicapped men’s stall was suspiciously covered in excrement.)
Actually, reading back over this, I suppose the front-runner is that it’s a movie about repressed homosexuality. The same thing I said about the title would kind of apply here. I don’t really care.