J. Edgar Hoover lived what is perhaps the most ironic of American lives. Consumed by his desire to make America safer from threats both foreign and domestic, Hoover became the singular force behind the FBI that we know of today. His pioneering work in fingerprinting, crime scene preservation, and organizational file-keeping altered criminal investigation methods forever. Hoover wanted to base his investigations on cold, hard factual evidence instead of dumb logic. CSI: Miami wouldn’t be possible without him.
But beyond the towering public figure that is J. Edgar Hoover there was a duplicitous private figure who was willing to blackmail his enemies, fabricate stories about himself, and, like the Communists he hated, attempt to destroy anyone who didn’t agree with his particular vision of America. In Hoover’s world, perceived threats to American freedom and democracy justified the bending of federal laws to preemptively preserve what is rightfully ours. Does this sound like it could relate to our current age?
Clint Eastwood, that grizzled old director and patron saint of Chevy cars, has helmed a 137 minute biopic of Hoover’s life that spans roughly 50 years of American history and delves into some of the more speculative aspects of Hoover’s private existence. Like many other biopics, J. Edgar is clumsily structured, ineffective in conveying the essence of a life that was far bigger than any silver screen treatment, and overwrought in all the wrong places (please stop scoring your own movies, Clint). That doesn’t mean that J. Edgar isn’t worth seeing, but be warned: this one is a bit of a mess.
The cluttered quality of J. Edgar is evident almost from the get-go. We begin with a voice-over speech by young Hoover, speaking out against the Communist (Bolshevik) forces that were dangerously creeping into 1920s America. Then Eastwood jumps forward to an aged Hoover, now dictating his life story to an FBI agent in his personal office. Yes, the well-worn “larger than life figure recounting his life to some youngin’ who doesn’t exactly understand his legacy” device. This approach seems about as old as storytelling, and just as decrepit and fake as the make up job done on Leonardo DiCaprio’s face. It would be easy to forgive Eastwood’s use of a time-honored narrative choice if he were able to hold it all together. But, you see, J. Edgar Hoover was a great organizer. He filed and catalogued all the books in the library of congress, and built the FBI into a well-oiled machine of investigative efficiency; Eastwood, on the other hand, is not known for precision in filmmaking. Say what you will about Hoover, a sloppy movie does not befit his legacy. On a first viewing, at least, Eastwood appears to use the “old man dictating” device at random, or he abandons it completely by bouncing from Hoover’s youth to his later years and back into his middle age without any connecting tissue. The device has the feeling of being tacked on, as if Eastwood wasn’t comfortable making a free form biopic that didn’t give the audience something concrete to hold on to. In his lack of daring, Eastwood has made a movie unworthy of the FBI.
The problem is compounded by the fact that Eastwood treads too much speculative ground regarding Hoover’s sexual preferences. While avoiding any explicit on-screen sex, Eastwood still does more than intimate Hoover’s latent homosexuality. And though latent homosexuality might be an interesting subject for a lot of other movies, it’s probably the least interesting thing about J. Edgar Hoover, and therefore a bit of a drag on a movie already runs long enough.
In Eastwood’s narrative, we can see early on that Hoover is a desperate man; sexually uninformed, socially unadjusted, and just plain awkward when he isn’t barking commands to agents. On only their third date (to the very exciting Library of Congress!), Hoover attempts to kiss one of his lovely FBI secretaries, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). She pulls away. In response, Hoover gets himself down on one knee and proposes marriage. She sensibly declines the proposition. Hoover, undaunted even in his moment of rejection, decides that if she won’t marry him, she might as well be his personal secretary. They have no romance that we ever know of, but their professional lives, and all the implications therein, are linked forever. Was Hoover genuinely attracted to Gandy? Did he just want to have a beautiful wife so he could have a respectable public image? Did he even know at that time that he had homosexual tendencies?
Eastwood never tries to psychoanalyze Hoover. There’s no back story about how not having a father, or not being able to socially interact with women, pushed him to be attracted to men. Instead, Eastwood is direct and almost too simple about Hoover’s (platonic?) relationship with Clyde Tolson, a young, handsome FBI recruit that meets none of Hoover’s requirements for placement within the agency. They vow to eat lunch and dinner together each day, and take vacations together, but Hoover and Tolson never appear to engage in sexual activity. They are friends with(out) benefits. It’s difficult to know exactly what Tolson sees in the Hoover the dictator, but he manages to stick by his side until J. Edgar dies.
When Eastwood gets his mind out of the gutter and focuses his film on Hoover at work, J. Edgar is a thrill to watch, not only for the story of a man-enigma, but also for Eastwood’s ability to create a place and time that we can immerse ourselves in. Encased in monochromatic cinematography, the film is full of period details to luxuriate in, small roles to marvel at, and a grand, classical approach to mies-en-scene. And while J. Edgar does get bogged down at times by Eastwood’s poor narrative construction and forays into homosexuality, we know that Hoover’s odyssey of facts and counter-facts, lined with intentions and preemptive investigation is a perfect story for our own times. Fighting against Communists in the 20s was not unlike fighting terrorists today. The need to catch criminals before they commit their heinous deeds, preemptive self-defense, is the battle cry of all wrongheaded patriots, and it is one of the most compelling aspects of J. Edgar. The intentions might be good, but the results can be horrifyingly dangerous.
Eastwood is willing to point out Hoover’s central hypocrisy: that the head of the FBI creates an entire organization based on the collection, dissemination, and use of facts, but also manages to skew facts about himself and hide or distort facts about others in order to get his mission accomplished. As if the irony of Hoover’s own life weren’t enough, Eastwood engages in the very thing that he tries to hold Hoover accountable for: speculation and gross implication. Historians suspect that Hoover was gay, and there’s enough circumstantial evidence to back that notion up, but is it really necessary to explore Hoover’s possible homosexuality when we already have a complex and compelling creator of the FBI to make a movie about? What does this speculation add to the film or to our perception of Hoover? Does it make him more human? Are we able to relate to him better?
J. Edgar could have been a great movie if Eastwood hadn’t tried to tread a middle ground. Either fully embrace the homoerotic possibilities through the wildest speculations, a la Oliver Stone, or don’t even reference Hoover’s tendencies at all. The “sensible” middle ground that Eastwood has chosen isn’t shocking enough to be bothered with and manages to water down all the other interesting and highly factual aspects of Hoover’s life.
Through all the narrative clutter and tentative homoerotic speculation, J. Edgar’s best asset is DiCaprio, who manages to fight off the horrid make up and gives us an immersive performance as Hoover. It may take you a few scenes to get used to his east coast accent, but this might be Leo’s finest acting yet. Avoiding the furrowed brow, he creates a Hoover as complex and messy as the narrative maze that surrounds him. It really is a pleasure to watch him and that was enough to get me through this one.