By Matt Smith
I got the sense while watching J. Edgar, the new biopic of J. Edgar Hoover from Clint Eastwood, that no one involved with the film’s production (except for maybe Leonardo DiCaprio) was quite able to pin down their subject. As good a film as it can be, every aspect is troubled by the feeling that it’s a step too far removed from the man himself. This could be due to any number of things, but is partly attributable to the impenetrable person of Hoover himself, which the film does a good job of conveying even if it fails to excavate some of the private details of his life which could lend some credence to the small insights which are made.
Written by Dustin Lance Black, who scripted Milk a couple years back, the film does not wallow in the salacious details of Hoover’s lifelong companionship with Clyde Tolson, nor does it dismiss it as nonsense. In keeping with Eastwood’s trademark style of understating an issue, the relationship is presented as matter-of-fact and non-judgmental as we might expect. Whether or not Hoover was a homosexual or liked to dress in women’s clothing–two details the film does not shy away from–is not the main point of interest for the film. It simply is.
One could argue that this is a problem with all biopics–they are all concerned primarily with the notion of one’s public image as a departure point to attempt a revelation of some kind. It’s the same no matter if it’s the struggles with addiction to drugs prevalent in recent films like Walk the Line, Ray, or, as parody, the Jake Kasdan directed Walk Hard: The Dewey Cox Story, or the troubled lives of big stars like James Dean and Marilyn Monroe. The difference is that rarely are we given a biopic that does not attempt a major revelation of information we don’t already have. J. Edgar is that biopic.
Instead, we are presented with a portrait of a man who was actively engaged in his own portraiture. Hoover’s life seems to have been spent posing and preparing for his image as a public figure. Every action he takes, including the consideration of female companionship, is calculated for its effect on his appearance. In this regard, it is somewhat akin to the film Bird, also directed by Eastwood, which also concerns the image of a man’s legacy.
DiCaprio’s performance as Hoover is impressive for his dedication to not only psychological accuracy, but physical accuracy as well. He gained some weight to play the older version of Hoover, and it works in aiding the illusion of age. There is a sense that he tried to understand Hoover the man, even if it’s simply at the level of his motivation for his behavior. This leads me back to the public image of Hoover, which was as much about performance as anything else.
One of the reasons we know so little about the man’s private life is that he was so secretive about it. He only had a small group of trusted individuals, and from what we can surmise, only one true friend. The film tells us that Hoover started working at the Bureau of Investigation at the height of civil unrest in 1919, with the bombings of targets by Bolshevik Revolutionaries. From there, he never stopped consolidating his power and building his reputation and image. There were famous spats with other agents (he tried for years to take credit for the killing of John Dillinger, even though he was nowhere around; the same goes for Alan Karpis and several others), he was wined and dined by celebrities and statesmen, and he kept a slew of private documents that were destroyed immediately following his death.
The film has a somewhat odd structure, flitting effortlessly (the makeup helps out tremendously, and is well maintained throughout) between different eras between the time Hoover took office to the time of his death. It’s gorgeously photographed and realized, and there are subtle touches in the mise-en-scene that work toward creating a realistic framework for the film’s temporal structure to work within.
There are some nice supporting performances from Armie Hammer as Tolson, and Judi Dench as Hoover’s mother, as central a character as Hoover in many regards due to the ways in which she shaped the man. Naomi Watts, however, seems to be sleepwalking through the last two-thirds of the film in her old-age makeup, given strikingly little to do by the script other than show up and remind us that there’s someone else other than Tolson whom Hoover doesn’t hate.
Hammer’s Tolson is the film’s human center, and he has a great scene at the end of the film in which he lays bare all the lies and purposeful deceptions Hoover has engaged in to cement not only his own personal posthumous legacy, but also that of the FBI, which he fears will be torn apart after his death. When Hoover leans in to kiss Tolson on the forehead before going home, it is one of the rare moments in which the film becomes remarkably, unfathomably emotional and profound.
So the question remains–what keeps J. Edgar from being a great film? Objectively, it’s not much, but the performances, interesting storytelling structure, and typically good writing and directing do not make up for the fact that it is still a fairly standard biopic. It suffers from familiarity as much as the decision not to get too personal with it subject. Hoover is such an imposing figure in 20th Century American history that merely documenting his exploits doesn’t seem to do him justice.
Nonetheless, I really liked that I couldn’t peg Eastwood’s opinion of the man, though I suspect this may also lend itself to some of the problems I have with the film’s standardized, strictly business, approach to biography. Problematic, yes, but at least it’s not the attempt at a political veneration or a smear job that it could have been in less assured hands. We have a picture of a man and his legacy that is open for discussion, and sometimes that’s enough for me. It’s deeply flawed, but overall J. Edgar is a solid enough effort to give it a look.
3 out of 5 stars