Veteran director Clint Eastwood’s earnest biopic of FBI boss J. Edgar Hoover chooses to gloss over the corruption, illegality and blackmail in favour of a pitiful and unfulfilled gay love story, underpinned by a romantic score.
Leonardo DiCaprio (The Aviator, Body of Lies) produces yet another remarkable performance, both as the driven young Hoover and the prosthetics-laden bitter old man. The trouble is, neither he nor Eastwood can help themselves but make one of the twentieth century’s most vilified men into a hopeless romantic lead. Tip-toeing around Hoover’s homosexuality, cross-dressing and ego-mania, we’re asked to excuse his paranoia and lies as merely brilliant Walter Mitty delusions all in the name of patriotism.
How they think they can white-wash Hoover’s illegal detentions, deportations and wire-taps in the current debate over constitutional rights with that delicate piano love theme is beyond me. Sorry gentlemen, it won’t wash.
The movie bookends the beginning and end of Hoover’s career, switching dizzily between the 1920’s and ’30’s, then 60’s and ’70’s; from the very establishment of the FBI as Hoover’s own private fiefdom separate from the Justice Dept., through various cases of home-grown terrorism, the bank robbers of the Depression era, and the Lindbergh baby case. Yes, Hoover laid the foundations of forensic investigation, but also the modern surveillance state. He also abused his power to the extent of serial blackmail of eight US Presidents in one way or another.
All of which the movie acknowledges, whilst tugging at our heart-strings with that bloody tinkly piano.
Hats off to DiCaprio for taking on another unsympathetic basket case of a role after The Aviator, and for doing the actor’s job of portraying a real human being instead of a Hollywood caricature. He captures Hoover’s voice and mannerisms (from newsreels and Senate recordings) perfectly. It’s another transformative role not just through the rubber old-age face; we actually lose the pretty young DiCaprio completely beneath Hoover’s monstrous ego.
In any other movie, his attempt to make the character sympathetic would be laudable; his demented father, his domineering mother (a great cameo by Judy Dench – Skyfall), his ambition, his homosexuality, and his unfulfilled relationship with his deputy, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, The Lone Ranger). Here, however, Hoover’s PR spin (outright fiction and lies) to prop up his all-too brittle ego, render his dictated memoirs, and thereby the entire narrative, unreliable.
It is difficult to forget just how horrific were Hoover’s abuses of power over fifty years, yet Eastwood chooses to put Hoover on his balcony overlooking more than one presidential parade, the forgotten, lonely patriot watching the passing of the Emperors.
The movie ends with the life-long relationships with Tolson and personal secretary Helen Gandy, an underused Naomi Watts (Diana) in brilliant form, without ever explaining their loyalty to a man who was always a monster. All accompanied by that bleeding-heart piano. No, Mr. Eastwood, J. Edgar is no romance. RC
J. Edgar (2011)
Directed By: Clint Eastwood
Written By: Dustin Lance Black
Running time: 2 hr. 17 min.
Genre: Historical, Drama
Cast: Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Dame Judi Dench, Ed Westwick, Josh Hamilton, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench, Lea Thompson, Jeffrey Donovan, Dermot Mulrooney, Dennis Quaid
Related: Rush (2013)