(by Dustin Putman
A lavish big-screen biopic of J. Edgar Hoover would seem like a no-brainer until one learns of how few records were found in the wake of his 1972 death. In 1935, he had been instrumental in founding the Federal Bureau of Investigation and had served as director for the forty-eight years in between. Frequently trail-blazing, tirelessly committed, stricken with paranoia, and not without his controversies, Hoover played an integral part in shaping what the FBI is today and devising some of its longtime investigative and forensic practices, from fingerprinting to wiretapping. Dedicated to his job though he was, a film that stuck only to the corroborated facts of his life would make for a rather dry, ineffectual procedural. A certain amount of conjecture is expected, then, and this is where "J. Edgar" finally, after a rocky-bordering-on-stiff first hour, is able to get to the heart of the matter. Director Clint Eastwood (2010's "Hereafter") and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (2008's "Milk") do not shy away from the rumors that swirl to this day around Hoover's mythos and character, but they are respectful rather than sensationalistic to his memory, seeing him as a tragically stubborn figure who, living in an era of narrow minds and ignorance, was never able to fully embrace his true self. Whether the events are fabricated or not from what really happened, the emotions ring true. Article continues below
Playing John Edgar Hoover from the age of twenty-four to seventy-seven, Leonardo DiCaprio (2010's "Inception") is immersive in his portrayal, from his slightly round, squarish physique (people tell him he's built "solid") to the arch enunciations of his speech, no doubt a result of his childhood stutter. Told primarily as he weaves his planned memoir to a collection of young, handsome transcribers, the film hops between early and late time periods, the expressive make-up and hairpieces doing wonders to clarify where in the story we are at any given time. Hoover is far from revered as a saint—shortly after World War I, he becomes obsessed with hunting down those he deems as radical communists and anarchists; he embellishes stories where he claims to have personally taken down outlaws like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly; years later, he views Martin Luther King Jr. as a direct threat—but he is rightfully declared a leader. In, for example, his fight to bring to justice the person responsible for the Lindbergh kidnapping and murder, Hoover is seen as admirable and ambitious, constantly striving for the greater good. He tries to find a lady companion—when Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) rebuffs his advances, he promptly hires her as his loyal secretary instead—but his interests more prominently lay with new hire and assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Besides being a critical figure in Hoover's life—-they were constant companions, traveling together and rarely eating dinner apart—Clyde is the wild card in "J. Edgar," the person who helps to focus and intimate a gangly narrative that, before this, shows little care toward what makes its central subject tick. For all of Hoover's laundry list of actions and achievements, it means nothing if the viewer doesn't care about the person he or she is watching. From out of this meandering, emotionally chilly thicket grows the real story the film wishes to tell, one about a man who was constantly searching to earn respect from others because it was the one thing he couldn't give himself. As director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black see it, Hoover lived in constant fear and denial of his homosexuality. He knew it would harm his career if people were to find out, and his stern mother Annie (Judi Dench) doesn't help, specializing in oppression. When she boldly tells him that she'd rather have a dead child than a "daffodil" for a son, her blunt cruelty is a testament to the intolerance symptomatic of their place in history.
Although the relationship between Hoover and Tolson occasionally resembles "Brokeback Mountain"-lite, right down to the macho fist-throwing that turns intimate and a deep love that will never be validated or made public, it is still the film's most dramatically engrossing element. Armie Hammer (2010's "The Social Network") is marvelous as Clyde Tolson, a stoic, obedient sort who can no longer stand for Hoover's self-deluded dismissal of what they share together. As they progress in age through the story—and even despite a ghastly make-up job on Hammer that is as unconvincing as DiCaprio's is authentic—Hammer's subtle, usually unspoken air of regret and longing is palpably moving. Clyde and J. Edgar could have been a great couple had they not hidden what was between them; now, as they near the end of their lives, the tragedy is in the knowledge of what could have been, but will never be.
If Clyde Tolson stood steadfastly next to J. Edgar Hoover until his death, totally devoted, Hoover was in no way oblivious to his own reciprocal feelings; indeed, he loved Tolson just as much, and was more than aware of the sacrifices that were being made to keep up appearances. "J. Edgar" plays things relatively safely, evading the lurid hearsay that a filmmaker such as Oliver Stone might have lent to the project but also not shirking away from the gossip—cross-dressing comes to mind—his legacy has left behind. Eastwood mounts these tricky matters, which could have turned the picture to camp, with responsibility and seriousness. As a fully-rounded biography, however, the results are more uneven. Naomi Watts (2011's "Dream House") is not developed enough to adequately establish who Helen Gandy is and why she has been so faithful to Hoover all these years despite no romantic interest in him whatsoever. As Hoover's mother Annie, Judi Dench (2011's "Jane Eyre") clasps on to this unpleasant woman with rightful abandon, but the character only is afforded one note. As for Hoover's 40-plus-year commitment to the FBI, it plays like a grab-bag of events with no cohesive through line. Handsomely photographed in shades of gray and brown by Tom Stern (2007's "Things We Lost in the Fire"), "J. Edgar" looks slick and workmanlike—costumes and art direction are also faultless—and finds its footing the closer the film turns Hoover into a human being who is more than his career. Still, there should have been a happier medium found. This is not quite the be-all, end-all biopic of J. Edgar Hoover that prospective viewers were expecting, or at least hoped for.