Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar is a remarkably cheerless affair—grim, disjointed, and paced like a snail funeral. But given the movie's subject—J. Edgar Hoover, for nearly 50 years the powerful and widely feared head of the FBI and its precursor, the Bureau of Investigation—this was probably inevitable. Hoover was a tightly buttoned-up teetotaler who was obsessed with propriety, demanding that his agents be meticulously barbered (no mustaches) and austerely clothed (no pinstripe suits!) at all times.
Intriguingly, though, Hoover was also long rumored to be gay—an assumption buttressed by the man's intimate, 40-year relationship with Clyde Tolson, a subordinate with whom he ate lunch and dinner every day, and with whom he also vacationed. In the years since Hoover died, in 1972, speculation has persisted that the tie between the two men was homosexual, while the director's supporters contend it was simply filial, noting Hoover's occasional liaisons with women—among them actress Dorothy Lamour.
Whatever the case, in the movie the bond between Hoover (strikingly played by Leonardo DiCaprio) and Tolson (Armie Hammer) is a central motif. Tolson is depicted as a yearning suitor for Hoover's erotic affection, while Hoover himself is seen as non-reciprocal—a man tormented by inclinations he refuses to acknowledge.
It is to the great credit of Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black (who won an Oscar for his script for Milk), that they ignore the undying media myth that Hoover was a public transvestite who participated in homosexual orgies at New York's Plaza Hotel in the 1950s. This lurid tale, retailed by a discarded society wife named Susan Rosenstiel—who was paid for telling it to gossipy biographer Anthony Summers—is too ludicrous to be credited, even though it has acquired over the years an aura of accepted truth.
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Instead of sinking to such sensationalism, the movie offers an admirably nuanced view of Hoover. If only the film were more coherent. It jumps from one era of Hoover's life to another—and then another, and another, and then back again—so that we're not always sure where we are or what's going on. One moment we're in 1919, with Hoover as a fervent Enemy Aliens investigator railing against immigrant anarchists and Bolsheviks; the next, we're in the 1930s, with Hoover cracking down (although never personally) on such celebrated miscreants as John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis. At various points we see him wielding scandalous material from his extensive investigative files for purposes of political bribery: allegations about Eleanor Roosevelt's secret lesbian life, John F. Kennedy's dalliance with a Mafia-linked woman named Judith Campbell Exner. And throughout we keep returning to scenes in Hoover's office in which he's seen dictating his memoirs to a succession of young amanuenses. (All of Hoover's papers were quickly destroyed after his death.)
The movie has a large cast, and memorable performances by Judi Dench, as Hoover's dominating mother (with whom he lived well into adulthood), and a near-unrecognizable Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, his doggedly loyal assistant.
But it's DiCaprio who carries the movie, playing Hoover from avid young lawman to wrinkled Washington manipulator. Such a physical evolution necessarily involves, in depicting the man's later years, a heavy carapace of aging makeup and hairpieces and extensive physical prosthetics. It's a sort of cinematic trickery that is often hard to accept—we can be distracted by the familiar actor's face buried beneath the effects. Eastwood deals with this problem forthrightly: Our first sight of Hoover is at the end of his career, and while we know it's DiCaprio in there beneath the wattles, and may even snicker a bit, the actor's commitment to the character soon overcomes any resistance we might have. In portraying a character in the grip of several obsessions, and tormented by sexual ambiguity, he stirs in us a limited but necessary sympathy for a man who in real life seemed a cold, unbending martinet.
So DiCaprio gives one of his most complexly layered performances. But its effect is obscured by the movie's narrative confusion, and by its excessive length (by now almost an Eastwood trademark) and rigorous solemnity. It's a biopic of considerable accomplishment, attempting to tell us an awful lot (much of it necessarily conjecture) about a basically unlikable figure. Some viewers may feel the movie conveys more than they need to know about Hoover, and at the end they may wonder if the man himself was ever worth knowing.
Kurt Loder is a writer living in New York. His third book, a collection of film reviews called The Good, the Bad and the Godawful, will be out on November 8th from St. Martin's Press. Follow him on Twitter at kurt_loder.