The holidays are here, which means Hollywood is busy unleashing their new batch of prestigious Oscar hopefuls. So it’s not much of a surprise to find the great old guard, Clint Eastwood, already camped out at the theaters with J. Edgar, his latest in a stream of totally respectable, slightly distant and ultimately perplexing movies.
In it, Leonardo DiCaprio plays J. Edgar Hoover, the first head of the FBI and the quintessence of red-blooded do-goodery for at least a few generations of Americans. The film follows him from his early angry years (where he shapes the young bureau like an enthusiastic sculptor) to his late angry years (as he flails wildly against his increasing irrelevance).
Naomi Watts, in the definitive “supporting role,” plays Helen Gandy, a woman who helps illuminate quite a bit about DiCaprio’s character. When she rejects Hoover’s advances, he immediately makes her his personal secretary. Just by force of his authority, they’ve suddenly become more intimate than some married couples.
J Edgar is an interesting but chilly exercise: expert enough to demand respect but too stoic to claim much feeling. Some of that has to do with the photography, done with a steely sheen that makes even the reds and yellows look like shades of grey. It gives the impression not of history being brought to life so much as history being brought to a really impressive museum.
On a happier note, the script (by Milk writer Dustin Lance Black) takes on all of Hoover’s legendary vileness and does it with the utmost humanism. There’s no doubt that this Hoover is a nasty guy. But as articulated by DiCaprio, it becomes obvious that the maliciousness is just a byproduct of his intense fear of loss: loss of respect, loyalty, and above all, control.
All the infamous Hoover rumors of gay lovers and cross-dressing are here and are examined with equal respect. Such tales were perfect gossip fodder 70-odd years ago, as they surely still would be today. But our filmmakers wisely realized that it’s far more interesting, and certainly more of a challenge, to take all those myths and attempt to turn them into a man. They’re trying to work backwards from a caricature to a portrait.
From our perspective—as audience members accustomed to seeing human lives reduced to sensational sound bites and threads of truth knotted into frightening fiction (and that’s just the news)—this all has a strange effect; almost a backfire. It ends up being neither as campy nor as real as we somehow expect it to be. This all makes it seem like something’s missing.
But, technically, nothing is missing. The love story between Hoover and his aide Clyde Tyson (Armie Hammer) is there, and it’s effective. DiCaprio feels less studious and stuffy than he usually does under such historical weight. More than anything, we sense that Eastwood is in complete control here, which only adds to the frustration over the fact that J. Edgar is slightly too cold and distant.
Grade = C+