In spite of a fusillade of P.R. overkill about what a brave, risk-taking actor he is, and how he spent five hours a day in a makeup chair squirming, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrait of a balding, sweaty, gristle-chewing, half-mad J. Edgar Hoover is gimmicky play acting. J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s exhausting chronicle of power obsession about the enigmatic, self-serving egomaniac who, as director of the F.B.I., kept America trembling with terror for half a century under the phony guise of patriotism, is a long, tedious and hollow disappointment.
Mr. Eastwood is too old to tackle a personality so complex; he knows nothing about what it takes to turn the character flaws of a cross-dressing mama’s boy into an attention-craving closet queen like Hoover. And how many prosthetics do we have to endure to watch Leonardo DiCaprio fake his way through roles like Howard Hughes and the forthcoming Frank Sinatra and Jay Gatsby—roles for which he is totally unsuited and therefore miscast. For now, we have another miscalculation in a bloodless film about a monster more pathetic than dangerous, with an odd, rambling screenplay by Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) that meanders all over the place unable to tell a story with any kind of narrative coherence. It’s not that J. Edgar is such a bad movie. (It’s not Melancholia.) But it is boring and ineffectual. There’s no passion behind it.
From his early days in the Justice Department to his death in 1972 at age 77, the movie leans heavily on the Max Factor jar to show boyish, cherubic Mr. DiCaprio in every phase of a controversial life. Some of the facts are a matter of public record. Named by Calvin Coolidge as the sixth director of what was then called the Bureau of Investigation, J. Edgar rose to glory and in 1935 was appointed by U. S. Attorney General Harlan Fiske Stone (Ken Howard) as the first director of the newly organized F.B.I.—a position he assumed was “for life.” For the next 36 years he made all the rules, sodomized the Constitution, declared war on everything he disliked from “Bolshevik radicals” to Martin Luther King, set back the progress of the civil rights movement, used force to root out every suspected communist, and arrested 4,000 people by the time he was only 24 years old. Yes, he initiated a lot of crime-fighting technology, including fingerprints, wire-tapping and forensics labs. But he also used the F.B.I. to intimidate celebrities and public figures, harass political activists, and illegally collect secret files of alleged evidence and hearsay against everyone from mob bosses to Marilyn Monroe. Insanely jealous, he fired staff members with poor educations and cheap wardrobes and ruined the careers of special law-enforcement agents who became heroes in the tabloids, such as Chicago’s Melvin Purvis, the man who actually tracked down and killed John Dillinger while Hoover took all the credit and drove him to suicide in 1960. Soft-soaping his corruption, the movie barely touches on these facts and refuses to take a stand on the many ways he proved himself a major hypocrite. While ranting homophobic prejudices against gays, he was a closet homosexual who carried on a private love affair with assistant deputy F.B.I. director Clyde Tolson (played softly by Armie Hammer, who appeared as Mark Zuckerberg’s handsome twin adversaries in The Social Network). Inseparable, the two men are shown kissing only one time in their 40-year relationship, following a fist fight on the floor when Hoover announced he was going to marry Dorothy Lamour. Despite documented eyewitness accounts of Hoover’s secret passion for cross-dressing, fueled by his strong, dominating mother (Judi Dench, flawless again), he is revealed posing with his mother’s necklace and silk dress against his chest only once, following her death. (F.B.I. employees behind his back called him “J. Edna Hoover”.)
Unable or unwilling to expose the elements that made him really interesting (Mr. Eastwood has ill-advisedly declared Hoover’s private life “none of my business”), the film plods along timidly without the courage of its own convictions. Remaining annoyingly passive about a diabolically conflicted despot while retaining an air of ambivalence is one of the major flaws in a film that compiles a lot of research with no dramatic payoff. Without a clear narrative arc, the script and direction lead us astray in a series of endless distractions. In the form of notes dictated for a memoir that was never published, the different periods in Hoover’s reign are framed in episodes connected with an unwieldy and less-than-unifying precision, giving Mr. DiCaprio myriad chances for double facials, young and old. His beginnings are illustrated by his deportation of liberal Jewish political dissident Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). Under the guise of protecting apple pie and the “American way,” his motto was “Knowledge is power,” but after the Depression, when the world changed, he didn’t change with it. Instead, he started spying on his enemies without benefit of search warrants, collecting harmful personal information on people of fame and influence, including Eleanor Roosevelt for being a lesbian, and going so far as to eventually threaten and intimidate Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy with rumors of his brother Jack’s Hollywood sexcapades. As early as 1932, before the official organization of the F.B.I., he feasted on personal publicity from the kidnapping of the baby of Charles Lindbergh (Josh Lucas), although he had no jurisdiction over the case, posing for photos kissing Shirley Temple, schmoozing with Ginger Rogers at the Stork Club, and creating a feeding frenzy in the press that led to the execution of immigrant Bruno Hauptmann (whom he falsely claimed to have captured bare-handed) without concrete proof of his guilt. His phony bravura did, to be truthful, result in the eventual passing of the “Lindbergh law,” making kidnapping a federal offense punishable by death. This is one of the persistent contradictions in the life of J. Edgar—every transgression was followed by a triumph. Unfortunately, all of these facts are crudely assembled with the rudimentary casualness of a school play. It is fascinating to learn that Hoover never personally made a single arrest, perjuring himself in Congress by taking credit for all of them. Hooked on amphetamine injections, he ended his career a graying, miserable wreck, still craving the affection of the American people, who instead have now all but forgotten him. Was he ever happy? Even in the end, as two sick, doddering old men, Hoover and Tolson were never able to admit their love. When J. Edgar died, newly inaugurated president Richard Nixon went apoplectic. “Seal off his office, change the locks, do what you have to do—I want those fucking files!” he ordered. But they were gone. The only two people who saw through him were his secret lover Clyde, who inherited his home, job and everything he owned, and his longtime private secretary, Helen Gandy (a wasted Naomi Watts), who stood by him through every trumped-up triumph and every embellished claim to achievement, and is last seen after his death shredding all of his files before Nixon could get to them, thus averting a bigger scandal than Watergate.
As a colorful chapter in American infamy, it’s a story worth telling in a better, more suspenseful film, but J. Edgar does not hang together. Mr. DiCaprio’s King of the G-Men is no new-age, old-school rough guy like Elliot Ness. He’s something of a sawed-off pipsqueak with a mean-spirited and ruthless pursuit of personal glory at everyone else’s expense. I expected more from a movie about the most feared man in America for half a century. Whatever else you think about him, in retrospect, he had balls of brass—an essential quality replaced in J. Edgar by dull indifference.
Running Time 137 minutes
Written by Dustin Lance Black
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts