REVIEW: Clint Eastwood Tries to Humanize an Ambitious, Dangerous Pipsqueak in J. Edgar
As Lily Tomlin's Ernestine once said, "There's nothing like a Hoover when you're dealing with dirt." Clint Eastwood's J. Edgar could use more dirt: This is a sensitive, sympathetic portrait of a scummy little man, an earnest attempt to map the contours and contradictions of a complicated son-of-a-bitch. But it's all too earnest, to the point of serving, unwittingly or otherwise, as an apologia. Even Eastwood's attempt at a poignant Hoover death scene fails to hit the mark: I for one would want to stick the guy with a pin to make sure he was really dead.
But let's not get ahead of ourselves. J. Edgar, which flips between two roughly defined eras, the 1930s and the 1960s through the mid-1970s, shows us how the ambitious and wily, if initially rather shy and awkward, John Edgar Hoover became one of the most feared men in America. Leonardo DiCaprio wears his usual old-man baby face for one half of the picture and a mask of moderately effective age makeup for the other. His performance is dutiful and respectful and meticulously managed, which is exactly what's wrong with it. Even though DiCaprio was a child actor -- a wonderful one -- he never really had a youth on-screen. Directors like Martin Scorsese saw what was astonishing about him and immediately began grooming him for greatness in pictures like Gangs of New York and The Aviator. Now, he can never be casual -- it's a luxury he was never able to afford -- and Eastwood has done him no favors by locking him into yet another hall-of-fame role. It's a testament to DiCaprio's precision and sensitivity that we feel as much for his J. Edgar as we do. But seeing DiCaprio encased in a mask of soft, saggy jowls -- in these scenes, he uses his buttery-sonorous vocal tone and piercing blue-green eyes, effectively if a bit desperately, to do much of the work -- is still dispiriting. If this is what "greatness," in a movie or in a performance, has to mean, I'd prefer a more intimate puniness, particularly when it comes to portraying a character like J. Edgar Hoover.
J. Edgar was written by Dustin Lance Black, who also wrote the 2008 Milk, and it represents a noble attempt to dovetail Hoover's professional "accomplishments" with his personal life. The picture hits all the significant markers: Hoover's intense relationship with his domineering mother (played by an imperious Judi Dench), his early, pipsqueaky ambitions and his eventual rise to become the head of the F.B.I., his roles (both the imagined and the real ones) in bringing down Depression-era criminals like John Dillinger and Machine Gun Kelly, and his frustrating, and frustrated, search for the kidnapper and killer of the Lindbergh baby, Bruno Hauptmann. Later, after more or less crowning himself King of United States Intel, he bullies the likes of Eleanor Roosevelt (crowing hypocritically over his discovery that she was having an affair with a woman), Martin Luther King (whom he viewed as an enemy of democracy, or the American Way, or something) and Robert F. Kennedy (played by Jeffrey Donovan of Burn Notice, a Boston-area native who finally gets to use the local accent that Massachusetts actors work so hard to shed).
But in between all that, Hoover had a tortured, complicated personal life, which J. Edgar takes great pains to show. Early on, in the 1930s, Hoover shows an interest in a typing-pool cutie, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who, being a strong, independent woman -- and perhaps sensing a bad risk in the personal-relationship department -- refuses his initial marriage proposal and instead becomes his secretary, sticking with him until and beyond the end of his life. (Watts has a great, '30s-style face, as already evidenced by King Kong; in her age makeup, she's a dead ringer for the present-day Hanna Schygulla, which is maybe not such a bad thing.)
Even more significant is Hoover's relationship, both professional and personal, with his longtime colleague Clyde Tolson. The movie outlines, quite believably, how Hoover's attraction to Tolson first manifested itself as intense nervousness and a desire to dominate. Tolson is unfazed. One of the first things he does is take Hoover to be fitted for some custom-made suits -- sort of like a Depression-era Rachel Zoe -- and before long, the two are confidants, though they of course have to hide the personal nature of their relationship behind closed doors. Hammer does make a coolly winsome Tolson. (Note to Hammer: Bambi called -- he wants his eyelashes back.) And in the movie's most effective and most piercing scene, Hoover and Tolson beat the crap out of each other in a hotel room, tussling out of frustration and, it seems, the rawest and most visceral kind of love. (Hoover and Tolson also sport some pretty smashing bathrobes in this sequence, courtesy of Eastwood's frequent costume designer Deborah Hopper.)
In general, it's hard not to feel sympathy for a closeted gay man in the days before Stonewall -- unless he's J. Edgar Hoover. Eastwood, Black and DiCaprio are all dancing as fast as they can in their efforts to humanize Hoover. But all you see is the dancing, and while it's nice that the picture is honest enough to show how creepy, duplicitous, manipulative and power-mad Hoover was, there are too many places where the only suitable soundtrack would be the tiniest violins in the world.
We're supposed to feel something as we watch the still-youthful J. Edgar mourning the death of his mother. (Grief-stricken, he dons one of her old dresses as a piano tinkles poignantly in the background, a moment of psychoanalysis that's about as insightful as the forensic psychiatrist's diagnosis in Psycho.) But the terrible thing about life is that mothers die: Good people and scoundrels alike have to deal with that reality. Grieving over our dead parents, as well as being gay or straight or bi, are the things that make us definably human. So why does J. Edgar Hoover -- a man who retooled basic civil liberties to his own liking, setting precedents that will never be undone -- deserve any special pleading?
In the past few years, Eastwood has given us a terrific, brazenly liberal-minded movie about what it means to be an American today (Gran Torino) and a rousing, if somewhat oversimplified, picture about how Nelson Mandela helped heal a nation with football (Invictus). He also gave us a plodding, overserious period picture in Changeling. J. Edgar is more of the same, but because it attempts to shoulder such a large historical burden, it's an even bigger failure. J. Edgar is a handsome-looking film in a Smithsonian Institution kind of way, featuring all the right desk lamps, the proper period-specific typewriters, the silk pocket squares folded just so. And cinematographer (and frequent Eastwood collaborator) Tom Stern gives the whole thing a satiny, pewter-toned glow. But for all its exterior grandness, J. Edgar is still just tinny and overreaching. This is an overgrown movie about a dwarf among men.
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