Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is an old-style biopic with new-style content. As much as it tries to encompass the full career of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover from 1919 until his death in 1972, the film inexorably turns on Hoover’s alleged homosexuality based on the lifelong bachelor’s 40-plus-year close friendship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Call it “Brokeback Bureau.”
There’s nothing sensationalistic about this approach. On the contrary, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the Oscar-winning script for “Milk,” which was about gay activist Harvey Milk, deliberately avoid the sort of scurrilousness that Hoover himself often favored in exposing the dark secrets (or trumped-up secrets) of his targets. “J. Edgar” is a lot fairer to Hoover than he was to his many enemies – real or imagined.
But fairness here is often indistinguishable from wishy-washiness. It’s relatively easy to portray Hoover in fairly sympathetic terms if you exclude or play down, as this film does, his more noxious legacies – especially his use of FBI-paid provocateurs during the civil rights era and his hounding of Martin Luther King Jr. (Few blacks served in the FBI during Hoover’s 48-year run as director.)
A portion of the King material is in the film, but, like much else, its essence is sexual rather than political: Hoover didn’t like the fact that King was adulterous. (Eastwood actually has Hoover, when he gets the news that JFK is assassinated, listening to a secret tape of King having illicit sex) This sort of depiction defangs the fuller political implications of the story. What we get instead is mostly a film about a sexually walled-in powermonger who detested those who would take power from him. (In only one of many such examples, he rapidly marginalizes G-man Melvin Purvis after Purvis becomes a national hero for capturing John Dillinger.) Hoover, who narrates the film and often serves as an unreliable witness, comes across as a monumentally petty megalomaniac – not exactly the stuff of tragedy.
How believable is DiCaprio? When I first heard he had been cast as Hoover, I couldn’t think of another actor physically less likely to pull it off. But he’s surprisingly good – especially, and even more surprisingly, in the many sequences of him as an older man. As the young Hoover, whose ardent hatred of Bolshevik radicals propels him into law enforcement, DiCaprio is a bit flat. It’s as if the actor was waiting for a chance to move beyond the early-years exposition and get to the meat of the role.
The gist of “J. Edgar” is almost entirely psychological. Hoover is portrayed in stark Freudian terms as a mama’s boy who lived with his martinet matriarch Annie (Judi Dench) for most of his life. He fears her wrath more than the wrath of the eight presidents he served (most of whom feared him – because of the secret files he kept on them). The film’s most disquieting scene comes when Annie, intuiting that her son might be gay, tells him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
Hoover takes this warning to heart. Although his relationship with Tolson is clearly depicted as a case of repressed longing, the key word here is repressed. When Tolson finally breaks down in a jealous fit and kisses Hoover full on the mouth and tells him he loves him, Hoover seems alternately baffled and disgusted and enthralled. But there is no danger, in the movie’s terms, that Hoover will act on his impulses. He’s a man who ultimately doesn’t trust anybody, and the script implies that this was so because he couldn’t trust himself.
The film’s back-and-forth flashback structure is cumbersome and points up the disparity between the thinness of the scenes of the early years, which include the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the somewhat dense and clotted material of the later years. Eastwood himself provides the spare, lachrymose piano score, with – inexplicably – snatches of Bach’s “Goldberg Variations” woven in. All this shape-shifting is intended to make us comprehend, if not admire, a sacred monster – a worthy companion to Orson Welles’s Charles Foster Kane.
It comes across instead as a form of special pleading. Hoover’s early and real accomplishments as a forensic pioneer are not what this film is celebrating. Its greatest sympathies are for a man whose psyche was so riven and repressed that he turned himself into a raging cipher – a nowhere man. The foundation of this sympathy is Hoover’s complicated sexuality. Eastwood and Black have attempted to provide Hoover with the balm he denied himself in his own lifetime. It doesn’t work. Grade: B- (Rated R for brief, strong language.)