Attempting to counter the prevailing image of J. Edgar Hoover as a repressed, hypocritical bully, this oddity of a film succeeds only in portraying him as a humorless, well-meaning bully (unless you find the “quip” that “I’m not Elvis” humorous). But with material so one-sided and pat that it never convinces or comes alive, Ernest Borgnine is hamstrung as the notorious FBI director. Pic intercuts his one-man performance (filmed in 1997) with a talking-head interview with one of J. Edgar’s colleagues and champions, working mightily to resuscitate the controversial figure’s reputation. After its four-wall Oscar-qualifying run in L.A., “Hoover” is unlikely to gather any theatrical intelligence.
Barrel-chested and round-faced, Borgnine has the right look to play the law-and-order icon. It’s a shame the script leaves him nothing to work with beyond political pronouncements and refutations of the numerous accusations Hoover faced during his 48-year tenure, as well as the more personal attacks that surfaced after his death. On a dark, somewhat stylized set — desk, filing cabinets, freestanding Ionic columns, faded Stars and Stripes — helmer Rick Pamplin moves around his actor and the camera, effectively varying the visuals without getting fussy. The sense of claustrophobia is unshakable nonetheless.
Only in the final moments does the thesp break through the stodgy text to create the glimmer of a human soul — suggesting the vulnerabilities and layers the accomplished Borgnine might have conveyed given richer material. Mainly he rants: against John Dillinger, Communists, fascists, the Ku Klux Klan, hippies and the “tabloid mentality,” which, in the script’s most compelling assertion, he says diminishes the value of citizenship in a democracy. But without any give-and-take such ideas have little depth or subtlety in the script by Robert W. Fisher and the helmer, leaving the general impression of a mind-numbing civics lesson-cum-pummeling.
Pic contends that, from the time the 29-year-old Hoover took the reins of the nation’s intelligence agency in 1924, he selflessly devoted himself to fighting crime, and, despite attempts by presidents of all persuasions to use the FBI for political purposes, he remained above the fray — indeed, that what the world needs now is another J. Edgar Hoover.
In addition to arguing that he wasn’t a homosexual or a transvestite, that he kept no “secret” files, never blackmailed anyone and conducted illegal wiretaps only at the written request of the president and attorney general, Borgnine’s Hoover must bellow such lackluster observations as “Adolf Hitler was a madman” and “After the Kennedy assassination, America was never the same.” In two awkward scenes, Borgnine is forced to “re-enact” Hoover’s side of phone conversations about momentous events. Dramatic dynamite this is not.
In striking contrast are the interview segs with Cartha D. “Deke” Deloach, former deputy director of the FBI, who worked with Hoover for 17 years and penned a book lauding his achievements. Deloach’s passion comes through loud and clear, making the “dramatic” passages all the drearier in comparison. Rick Silanskas’ score lends some texture and momentum to Hoover’s screed, but to little overall effect.
End titles excerpt a 1998 New York Times retraction relating to the allegation that Hoover was a cross-dresser, which apparently was based on a single, questionable “eye witness” report. At best, the potentially provocative arguments here indicate that Hoover’s career would make a fascinating subject for documentary exploration.