Director: Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench, Naomi Watts
J. Edgar is made with all the fine technical skill that is Clint Eastwood’s hallmark as a director–the guy knows how to put together a film. And it’s acted by a Leonardo DiCaprio who is at the top of his considerable game. DiCaprio is excellent underneath transformative age makeup that turns one of Hollywood’s prettiest 30-somethings into a passable semblance of the loathsome toad who squatted in the belly of federal law enforcement for most of the 20th century. The only trouble with the film is the script, and the director’s intention, which was either to whitewash a great American villain, or to say nothing at all. I’m not sure which is the greater sin.
The man, as a villain
J. Edgar Hoover virtually created the FBI through an enormous act of will, and built and maintained it through an endless exercise of blackmail against leading political figures, including the presidents he served. He championed the use of forensics and other now-basic tools of the crimefighter’s trade. He also metaphorically wiped his ass with the constitution as he relentlessly invaded the privacy of U.S. citizens–peace activists, union organizers, hippies, Martin Luther King–using illegal wiretaps and a whole host of clandestine activities through a program called COINTELPRO. Hoover’s FBI was the virtual centerpiece of the anti-Communist hysteria of the 1950s, an era for which blustering villain Joseph McCarthy is better known. Eastwood’s film does not significantly grapple with Hoover’s darker side, a failing in any biography, but following a decade in which erosion of civil liberties has been a key political issue, it seems a particularly glaring omission.
The film, as a story
First, though, let us consider the film as divorced from history. The strengths are in Eastwood’s sure camera work, the film’s ability to convincingly stage historical settings, and the work of a largely stellar cast. The weakness is in the film’s treatment of the professional and personal Hoover, and its failure to say much about either. The political Hoover comes off as part unsung hero, part forgivable, occasional sinner. But there isn’t enough done with his misdeeds to make these issues compelling. On the personal front, Hoover’s long-rumored gay relationship with his Bureau No. 2, Clyde Tolson, is treated here as a chaste and frustrating story of love in which neither Hoover personally nor the general climate could openly accept homosexuality. Call it “Brokeback Bureaucracy.” But their affair, though afforded a tender moment or two, never really resonated with me. I didn’t root for their love, I didn’t feel as much sympathy for Hoover’s repressed suffering as I might have, despite the skill DiCaprio and Armie Hammer, as Tolson, brought to the roles.
In the end, then, why am I watching a two-and-a-half hour film about J. Edgar Hoover? What does Eastwood want me to think? “Not as bad as you might’ve heard”? “Gay, but not as gay as you might’ve heard”?
The film, as a view of history
Then there’s the historical aspect. The film indicates that Hoover blackmailed and FDR and JFK and harassed, and attempted to blackmail, Martin Luther King. The blackmail material and the fact that Hoover did so are historically known, but nonetheless, the film seems to step very gingerly around the subject of Dr. King, perhaps out of respect and fear of his towering, iconic reputation. All that’s fine. But the film’s portrayal of the King harassment is the one spot where the word “COINTELPRO” is mentioned, without ever giving an idea of the thousands of people similarly mistreated under its auspices (the program ran from 1956 to 1971).
The film similarly sidesteps the FBI’s role in the communist witch hunts of the 1950s. That era is dismissed in a sentence as, in the 1960s, Hoover tells a biographer that Joseph McCarthy was a phoney. Nice sentiment, but not enough. While the film does portray Hoover as obsessed with “subversives and radicals,” it doesn’t ever discuss his role in that most volatile period. I know we shouldn’t rely on Wikipedia for historical reference, but it’s pretty damned convenient, and here’s a section of an article that quotes an actual book on the period:
In Many Are the Crimes: McCarthyism in America, historian Ellen Schrecker calls the FBI “the single most important component of the anti-communist crusade” and writes: “Had observers known in the 1950s what they have learned since the 1970s, when the Freedom of Information Act opened the Bureau’s files, ‘McCarthyism’ would probably be called ‘Hooverism’.” FBI director J. Edgar Hoover was one of the nation’s most fervent anti-communists, and one of the most powerful.
You won’t learn that from this movie. You won’t learn much that is reliable, because the conceit of the film is that Hoover, an inveterate liar and self-aggrandizer, is dictating his biography, and is usually overstating his glories and concealing his failures. Occasionally the movie will follow a scene visually dramatizing Hoover’s untrue heroism with a character saying, “That didn’t happen.” But the weight of the visuals tends to tilt the movie toward what Hoover would have us believe.
So why am I watching a two-and-a-half-hour film about J. Edgar Hoover? What does Eastwood want me to think? That the fact that Hoover had a personal side humanizes his more monstrous behaviors? That Hoover’s misdeeds weren’t that bad (relentlessly minimized as they are, here)? I will agree that Hoover’s achievements are neglected in comparison to his greater villainy, and it is nice to balance that a bit, but to do so without confronting the full truth of the man’s career results in a meaningless film.
The film, as a good-looking failure
Ultimately, the viewer who already knows a lot about Hoover can fill in much of what Eastwood reduces to a line or two of dialogue, and may find some value in the film. A viewer less versed in the history will not get anything but a pretty and somewhat aimless movie. That’s what earns this thing only 2* stars. There’s a lot of craftsmanship on display, and I enjoyed it more than a pair of stars would indicate … but it’s just not rising to its subject matter, or the basic demands of story.
*Originally I assigned this two stars, and felt a little bad about that. But before I could post this, I saw The Immortals, and if this movie gets only two stars, that piece of zero-talent crap would get negative stars. So I spotted Dirty Harry an extra half-star. What, you didn’t know this stuff was arbitrary?