Leonardo DiCaprio stars as J. Edgar Hoover, the man some think was the most powerful American of the 20th century. The script, by Dustin Lance Black, (who wrote a much better biographical screenplay with Milk) has a hoary structure–it’s told in flashback, as Hoover dictates his memoirs. I found this structure unbelievably square, but felt a little embarrassed when Black turns the tables at the end of the film and we realize that Hoover is not a reliable narrator.
DiCaprio plays Hoover from the age of 24, when he assisted in organizing the Palmer raids, which struck back at anarchists after the bombing of the Attorney General’s home in 1919, through the wars with celebrity bank robbers and gangsters, to his gathering of secret files on people in power, such as Eleanor Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy (he is shown listening to a wiretap of an assignation with Kennedy and a woman when he hears of Kennedy’s assassination–fascinating if true).
We also see his relationship with his mother, Judi Dench, who tells him, perhaps suspiciously, that she would rather have a dead son than a “daffodil” for a son, and his long relationship with Clyde Tolson, who was the number two man at the FBI and Hoover’s good friend. The film is coy to a point about their relationship, as nothing has been proven as to their status as lovers, but a key scene that has Tolson erupting in fury at Hoover’s announcement that he plans to propose to a woman (Dorothy Lamour, another amazing fact I didn’t know), spells things out pretty clearly. The famed rumor that Hoover dressed in women’s clothes is addressed here, but in a totally different context than might have been guessed.
Eastwood and Black extend only a little sympathy to Hoover for having a ball-busting mother. Mostly they take a dim view of him, mostly for his vainglorious posturing. When it’s pointed out to him that he didn’t actually take part in the shooting of John Dillinger, he fires the man who did, Melvin Purvis. They also emphasize the nation’s chief law enforcer as a man who cares little about the law. More than once Tolson wrinkles his brow at Hoover’s plan of action and says, “Isn’t that illegal?” Hoover’s anti-communism so overwhelms him that he virtually ignores organized crime, and is so eager to restore his good name that he ignores the doubts over the guilt of Bruno Hauptmann in the Lindbergh kidnapping (this is a major plot line in the film and something I know a little bit about, since it happened just a few miles from where I live, and the full story is far more interesting).
The film is photographed by Tom Stern, and has the look that Eastwood favors, especially in his historical films–diffuse lighting and earth tones. The editing, Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach, effectively bounces back and forth through time. But the makeup is spotty. DiCaprio’s old age makeup–he plays the man up until his death at age 77, was better than I anticipated, but the makeup for Armie Hammer as Tolson makes him look embalmed.
As for DiCaprio, he sure works hard. He reminds me of a duck (stick with me) that looks so placid sailing across the surface of the water, while underneath the surface the bird’s feet are moving furiously. Unfortunately, we see DiCaprio’s feet moving furiously. I never forgot it was DiCaprio I was watching, hung up on his accent and facial expressions. Hammer is good, despite his old-age makeup. Naomi Watts, as Hoover’s long-time secretary (he proposes to her, but hires her instead) is largely wasted in a nothing role.
I think my favorite part of the film was learning that Hoover and Richard Nixon hated each other. When Hoover dies, Nixon gives a completely insincere tribute to him, even as he sends his men to raid Hoover’s files, hoping to find his secret stash.
Hoover’s life may be far too interesting to be captured in a conventional movie like this one. The depth of the man’s hatred and lust for power is probably unfathomable, and while Eastwood’s film makes me want to read more about it, it’s unsatisfying.
My grade for J. Edgar: C