By Ann Hornaday
Wednesday, Nov 09, 2011
Anyone with strong opinions about founding FBI director J. Edgar Hoover is unlikely to come away satisfied by "J. Edgar," Clint Eastwood's ambitious, ultimately deflating portrait, which somehow manages to elide his worst abuses of power while making a burlesque of his personal vulnerabilities.
Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black ("Milk") shrewdly organize "J. Edgar" around secrets - those that Hoover wielded in order to gain and keep power for an extraordinary 48 years at the bureau and those that he kept about his own intensely guarded private life. But because Hoover so adroitly avoided leaving any kind of paper trail, much of "J. Edgar" necessarily hinges on speculation and hearsay, especially regarding his intimate personal and professional relationship with Associate FBI Director Clyde Tolson.
His well-documented ruthless pursuit of civil rights leaders and other activists, on the other hand, is represented by a few billboard sequences that do little justice to the injustices he either perpetrated or ignored.
That "J. Edgar" suffers from such a structural weakness makes it all the more lamentable that the performance at its center is so strong. Leonardo DiCaprio, who despite attaining the ripe age of 36 still has trouble losing the boyish crackle in his voice, convincingly portrays the jowly bureaucrat from his days in the Justice Department during the Palmer Raids until his death in 1972. With the help of makeup, prosthetics, beady brown contact lenses and a wiry, wavy toupee, DiCaprio fully inhabits the man whose obsession with Bolshevik communism took root in 1919, when his boss at the Justice Department was almost killed by a bomb.
Urged on by his domineering mother, Annie (Judi Dench), and eventually aided in his mission by Tolson (Armie Hammer) and his lifelong secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), Hoover outmaneuvered eight presidents and countless political enemies to become the ultimate Washington insider, rooting out crime and communism, manipulating the press and masterfully burnishing his own myth as the nation's most famous G-man. (One of "J. Edgar's" most fascinating insights is how he introduced such forensic tools as centralized fingerprint files and laboratory analysis to the bureau, rationalizing the agency he would come to deploy so irrationally.)
All of it makes for a rollicking, outsize tale of overweening ambition and palace intrigue, but "J. Edgar" instead plays it safe in a turgid, back-and-forth series of tableaux that look as if they were filmed from behind a scrim soaked in weak tea. As Hoover dictates his memoirs to a series of young agents, his hectoring drawl takes us back to his early years fighting gangsters and solving the Lindbergh kidnapping, while the central narrative traces his alliance with Tolson, portrayed by Hammer as an eager pup who agrees to be Hoover's No. 2 only if they will never miss a lunch or dinner together.
The tacit premise of "J. Edgar" is that, despite liaisons with Dorothy Lamour and Lela Rogers, Hoover was a closeted homosexual, unable to come to grips with his identity because of the suffocating control of his cruel, power-hungry mother. ("I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," she tells him.)
In one of several awkwardly staged scenes, after Annie's death, J. Edgar dons one of her dresses and a string of beads, apparently as a sop to audiences familiar with long-standing rumors of cross-dressing. But what the filmmakers clearly intend as a sympathetic portrayal of Hoover's tortured psyche instead gives him a troubling resemblance to Norman Bates. ("Yes, mother," Hoover wearily singsongs in "J. Edgar's" Oedipal leitmotif.)
There are other blips and slips: As persuasive as DiCaprio's performance is, Hammer never finds his footing as Tolson, who teeters on the verge of fey stereotype; his unsure portrayal isn't helped by the atrocious rubbery mask he wears in Tolson's later years. Supporting figures such as Robert F. Kennedy and Richard M. Nixon are played in wince-inducing impersonations that, in Nixon's case especially, play like crude "Saturday Night Live" outtakes; the tantalizing figure of Miss Gandy, who held all of Hoover's secrets, is never fleshed out (she's even denied the dignity of an end-credit postscript).
Eastwood's most fascinating narrative gambit comes late in the film, when Tolson boldly tells Hoover - and the audience - that the stories he's telling for the record didn't happen the way we just saw them play out. He didn't arrest the Lindbergh kidnapper or run down hoodlums with guns blazing.
But if "J. Edgar" suggests that he was his own most unreliable narrator, it still leaves viewers with a confounded sympathy, even gratitude, for the man. However alarming the comparison might be to Eastwood and his fans, the movie that "J. Edgar" brings most readily to mind may be Oliver Stone's "Nixon," which offered a similar psycho-biographical olive branch to its conflicted, controversial protagonist.
"Your child is sure and keeps this country safe," Miss Gandy tells the aging Hoover at one point. Eastwood would seem to agree, judiciously reminding viewers of Hoover's best intentions while choosing to relegate his most egregious missteps to the shadows (literally, when Hoover bugs and wiretaps a philandering Martin Luther King Jr.). The contradiction "J. Edgar" never confronts is that, for much of Hoover's tenure, untold numbers of Americans weren't safe, being routinely raped, kidnapped and lynched in a campaign of racist intimidation. Hoover chose not to investigate those crimes with his patented aggressive zeal, of course, choosing instead to ignore them in the name of fighting communism. During those years at least, he let the terrorists win.
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