Federal basket case
With Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas; Running Time: 137 minutes; Written by Dustin Lance Black; Directed by Clint Eastwood; Rated R (for brief strong language)
It may be that no one can really do justice to the life of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover, but give credit to director Clint Eastwood and star Leonardo DiCaprio for trying. J. EDGAR has to be classified as an “interesting failure.” It doesn’t quite hang together, but it’s worth seeing for what works.
Hoover, played by DiCaprio, is a fascinating figure. He seized power in creating a federal law enforcement and investigation agency at a time where fighting crime was considered strictly a matter of local concern. There’s no question that Hoover created something that was desperately needed. He brought scientific expertise into the process, and he pushed to enact laws that would give the Federal government the authority to act when criminals crossed state lines.
He was also someone who understood how to play to the media and use it to his advantage at a time when most officials were incredibly naïve. With Hoover’s acquiescence, the FBI was celebrated in comic books, on radio shows, in movies, and – later – on television. It built public respect for the Bureau, even if Hoover claimed credit for the work of others, and let the requirements of public relations get in the way of the facts.
As depicted here, Hoover’s efforts came with a price: power corrupts and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Over time, politicians learned that you didn’t want to make an enemy of Hoover since his secret files (most of which were destroyed upon his death in 1972) had plenty of dirt on political figures right up to the Presidents of the United States and their wives. Hoover had good reason to want to have the upper hand, even with the Presidents under whom he served. His relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his top aide, is widely assumed to be that of a closeted gay man at a time where the revelation of such would have meant the destruction of his career. The film implies much but also leaves some ambiguity, as befitting what is known – and remains unknown – about Hoover’s private life.
It is the complexity and ambiguity that makes “J. Edgar” such a difficult film. On the one hand, DiCaprio does a masterful job showing Hoover to be someone fighting to create an agency that would change the way we dealt with crime. On the other hand, there is the age make-up that seems to work with DiCaprio but transforms Armie Hammer not into an elderly Clyde Tolson but a man under a lot of latex. Then there’s the way Eastwood and screenwriter Justin Lance Black deal with difficult details attributed to Hoover’s life, such as a claim that he was a crossdresser. They show Hoover grieving the death of his beloved mother (Judi Dench) by donning her clothes, but it comes across as awkward and contrived. It might have been better not to ask audiences to buy into it at all.
“J. Edgar” is a fascinating if flawed film about a fascinating and flawed figure. There is no question we are better off for J. Edgar Hoover having fought so hard to create and defend the FBI, and there is no question the man subsequently did damage to individuals and to civil liberties in continuing to maintain his turf. Give Eastwood credit for not backing off from some very difficult material. This may be the best we can expect from a Hollywood examination of the life and times of this complex figure.•••
Daniel M. Kimmel is a veteran movie critic and author of a host of film-related books, the most recent being Jar Jar Binks Must Die… And Other Observations About Science Fiction Movies. He teaches film at Suffolk University and lives in Somerville.