Breezy and superficial, Clint Eastwood’s overview of the first four decades of what came to be called the Federal Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar, is by far the director’s most engaging and entertaining film. Beginning in flashbacks in 1919 at the Department of Justice, the film pieces together a cardboard puzzle that zigzags through various time-perspectives as an elderly J. Edgar Hoover, sporting a self-serving and distorting spin, recounts his experiences, including as chief at the F.B.I., to a reporter. Hoover maintained his career, which spanned eight presidencies, by (beginning with F.D.R.) amassing “secret files” on the presidents and their wives, lovers, wives’ lovers, etc., that gave him the power to pressure and blackmail. Martin Luther King, Jr., also merited a file. The excellent script by Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing Milk (Gus Van Sant, 2008), correctly posits that the conviction fueling (or rationalizing) Hoover’s ambition—and not his alone—was the fear of a Communist takeover of the U.S. that the 1917 October Revolution in Russia had unleashed.
Moreover, Black’s script, a joyously light and intricate thing, cleverly exploits rumors and innuendo about Hoover’s (here) tortured sexuality to suggest that these “secret files” of his were a displacement of his own secret life and inclinations; command of the files somehow enabled Hoover to take command of these inclinations and tailor his public image. Although one should probably not accept this notion as any kind of biographical truth, the daring quality of Black’s speculation dazzles.
Indeed, this is, altogether, a dazzling piece of work. Involving and even engrossing throughout a hefty length, the film is positively riveting on one subject: the Lindbergh kidnapping. It is its investigation of this “Crime of the Century” that moved the public to identify with the F.B.I. and moved Congress to legislate specific powers and federal authority to the Bureau. Eastwood is surprisingly witty on the subject of the American public’s earlier hostility to the Bureau and identification instead, during the Depression, with the gangsters that the Bureau pursued.
One cannot watch this film without noting the similarities between Hoover and the U.S. president at the time of Hoover’s death: Nixon. Both were dyspeptic, power-hungry, paranoid; both were obsessed with history’s view of them and felt justified in doing anything to fit their received image to their delusions; both were surveillance-prone; both were willing to break any law and commit any crime to achieve an advantage against their perceived enemies. Both were anti-organized labor. Both were frightened men.
J. Edgar portrays Hoover as a beast—professionally, that is. At the same time the film largely succeeds at the delicate feat of redeeming Hoover personally. He becomes something of a figure of pathos despite a strident, largely unnuanced lead performance by Leonardo DiCaprio.
What in the hell is DiCaprio doing in this film? Hoover was not a perpetual pretty-boy—not with that bulldog face of his atop a squat body. Looking damn good despite a load of makeup, DiCaprio never once can suggest just what Hoover’s astounding ugliness contributed to his warped psychology and warped view of the world. Too, he rarely seems real; he is always recognizable as himself, DiCaprio playing dress-up. This shallow performance doesn’t even try to leave the harbor of the actor’s own personality for a jab at the menace and darkness of the real “J. Edgar.” To his credit, though, DiCaprio is at his best when suggesting the homoerotic feelings, generally at least half-denied, governing his lifelong close friendship with Bureau associate Clyde Tolson.
Naomi Watts is good as the Justice Dept. secretary who becomes Hoover’s personal secretary, the guardian of her boss’s “secret files,” after she refuses his marriage proposal and confesses her ambition. In an odd way, this woman’s career-mindedness duplicates Hoover’s.
Not so good, however, is Judi Dench, who is ill-defined as Hoover’s mama.
Tom Stern photographed this color film immaculately; most everything is very dark, with only a trace of color, and yet everything is clear, without the currently fashionable infliction on us of optical torture. It is all the darkness—the muddle—of a man who, telling his story, may be irrevocably lost in his own “file.”
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