×

J. Edgar

Any movie in which the longtime FBI honcho features as the central character must supply some insight into what made him tick, or suffer from the reality that the Bureau's exploits were far more interesting than the bureaucrat who ran it -- a dilemma "J. Edgar" never rises above.

With:
J. Edgar Hoover - Leonardo DiCaprio
Helen Gandy - Naomi Watts
Clyde Tolson - Armie Hammer
Charles Lindbergh - Josh Lucas
Annie Hoover - Judi Dench

J. Edgar Hoover’s mystique lies in the fact that while he kept meticulous files with compromising details on some of America’s most powerful figures, nobody knew the man’s own secrets. Therefore, any movie in which the longtime FBI honcho features as the central character must supply some insight into what made him tick, or suffer from the reality that the Bureau’s exploits were far more interesting than the bureaucrat who ran it — a dilemma “J. Edgar” never rises above. With Leonardo DiCaprio bringing empathy to the controversial Washington power-monger, Clint Eastwood’s old-school biopic should do solid midrange business.

In 1993, Anthony Summers published a tawdry expose titled “Official and Confidential, the Secret Life of J. Edgar Hoover,” which aired Susan Rosenstiel’s claim that she had witnessed Hoover, a lifelong bachelor who was seldom seen without trusted deputy Clyde Tolson, wearing a cocktail dress at a gay orgy in New York. Though never corroborated, the claim stuck, and the legacy of this much-feared public figure — who served as FBI director under eight presidents, across 48 years and through some of the most trying cases of the 20th century — is now dominated by associations with cross-dressing.

If the assumptions about his sex life are true, that would make “J. Edgar” the story of the highest-ranking homosexual in American history, produced by a major Hollywood studio and directed by one of the industry’s most venerable directors — hardly insignificant in an industry that goes to great lengths to obfuscate the sexuality of its own stars. While not exactly coy, Eastwood’s classically styled look at Hoover’s life takes a long time to arrive at questions of the character’s proclivities. When it does get there, however, this new dimension of the character so enlivens what has been a mostly dry portrayal of one man’s crusade to reform law enforcement that it becomes the pic’s focus.

True to Eastwood’s understated nature, “J. Edgar” offers the “tasteful” treatment of such potentially salacious subject matter, though a more outre Oliver Stone-like approach might have made for a livelier film. With the exception of a few profanities (enough to land the pic an audience-limiting R rating) and a lone homoerotic wrestling scene so tame that Ken Russell’s “Women in Love” feels like an X by comparison, the film could pass for something Warners would have released in an earlier era — earlier even than many of the events depicted onscreen, as suggested by Tom Stern’s cinematography, desaturated nearly to black-and-white.

Eastwood’s restraint applies to not only the kid-gloves depiction of how Hoover slyly manipulated politicos and press, including a loathsome attempt to blackmail Martin Luther King Jr. into declining the Nobel Peace Prize, but also to his oddly nonjudgmental approach to Hoover’s sexual identity, depicting him as a man too Puritanical to pursue intimacy with someone of either gender.

As he did with “Milk,” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black follows the print-the-legend philosophy, building to what could have been the ultimate tragic love story between two men: Johnny and Clyde (as Truman Capote dubbed Hoover and Tolson), companions for the better part of five decades who never had the chance to express their affection — a consequence of Hoover’s insistence that FBI employees live up to the strictest code of conduct (he wouldn’t even allow them to drink coffee on the job).

The opening reel establishes both the scope of the story, which ranges from Hoover’s 20s to his final days overseeing the FBI at age 77, and DiCaprio’s remarkable ability to play the character at any point along that timeline. Aided by a convincing combination of facial appliances, makeup and wigs, the thesp draws auds past that gimmick and into the character within a matter of a few scenes. There’s an innate kindliness to DiCaprio that makes for a more likable protagonist than Hoover as the tempestuous monster so many biographers describe, which is good news for the film’s commercial prospects but seemingly at odds with reality.

Surely this can’t be the glory hound who collaborated with Sen. Joseph McCarthy on his anti-communist witch hunt and called King “the most notorious liar in the country,” nor the same FBI chief accused of racism (the Bureau antagonized civil-rights leaders and employed few blacks), homophobia (gays were dismissed from service) and sexism (women were allowed to serve as secretaries and assistants, but never agents).

Rather than seriously engaging with any of these common accusations, Black’s script skips back and forth through Hoover’s CV, alternating public grandstanding with invented insights into his private life. Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) exerts enormous control over her son’s personality, telling him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,” in the film’s most chilling scene. Tolson (Armie Hammer), whose prissiness accounts for the film’s scant laughs, also surfaces early, lurking behind the frosted-glass door to an adjoining office while Hoover dictates a self-aggrandizing book.

Considering how critical any other character’s perspective might be, allowing Hoover to narrate his own story comes as a generous gift from Black. Hoover’s voiceover gives form to a story that starts out as an institutionally approved version of how the FBI came to be, punctuated every so often by a high-profile arrest or newfangled forensic development (an investigation into the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s son supplies the sort of procedural intrigue that comes comfortably to Eastwood). As the pic progresses, however, Hoover’s words grow increasingly defensive, and the episodes drift into far more personal territory.

Since you can’t put a face on the love interest in a workaholic’s story, Black must manufacture romance on the margins. In the first act, Hoover briefly courts Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), an office girl who declines his marriage proposal on their third date, but agrees to become his secretary. A short time later, Hoover meets Tolson in a scene staged to suggest love at first sight.

As written, Tolson’s character is clearly gay, but Eastwood seems noncommittal about Hoover. Certainly there are clues in nearly every aspect of the production, from Deborah Hopper’s ever-dapper wardrobe to the meticulously appointed sets overseen by James Murakami and decorated by Gary Fettis. At one point, auds catch a glimpse of the entry stairwell to Hoover’s home, where a framed portrait of his mother hangs alone. What’s missing from this picture? Why, the famous nude photo of Marilyn Monroe that hung in the real-life Hoover’s hallway.

Popular on Variety

J. Edgar

Production: A Warner Bros. release and presentation of an Imagine Entertainment, Malpaso production. Produced by Brian Grazer, Robert Lorenz. Executive producers, Tim Moore, Erica Huggins. Directed by Clint Eastwood. Screenplay, Dustin Lance Black.

Crew: Camera (Technicolor/B&W, Panavision widescreen), Tom Stern; editors, Joel Cox, Gary D. Roach; music, Eastwood; production designer, James Murakami; supervising art director, Patrick M. Sullivan; art director, Greg Berry; set decorator, Gary Fettis; costume designer, Deborah Hopper; sound (Dolby Digital/SDDS/Datasat), Jose Antonio Garcia; supervising sound editors, Alan Robert Murray; re-recording mixers, John Reitz, Gregg Rudloff; special effects supervisor, Steven Riley; visual effects supervisor, Michael Owens; visual effects, Method Studios Vancouver, Lola Visual Effects; stunt coordinator, Buddy Van Horn; assistant director, David M. Bernstein; casting, Fiona Weir. Reviewed at Warner Bros. Studios, Burbank, Nov. 2, 2011. (In AFI Film Festival -- opener.) MPAA Rating: R. Running time: 136 MIN.

With: J. Edgar Hoover - Leonardo DiCaprio
Helen Gandy - Naomi Watts
Clyde Tolson - Armie Hammer
Charles Lindbergh - Josh Lucas
Annie Hoover - Judi DenchWith: Jeffrey Donovan, Miles Fisher, Damon Herriman, Ary Katz, Dermot Mulroney, Geoff Pierson, Michael Rady, Stephen Root, Ed Westwick.

More Film

  • on day 3 of the London

    Barbara Broccoli, Richard Curtis Team With Passion Pictures, HTYT Films on Paralympics Documentary

    Oscar-Winning British production company Passion Pictures is teaming up with James Bond producer Barbara Broccoli and filmmaker Richard Curtis on a new feature documentary about the Paralympic Games. The project, currently titled “Harder Than You Think” brings together Passion’s John Battsek with producer Greg Nugent of HTYT Films, with Broccoli and Curtis both serving as [...]

  • Tribeca Film Insitute's PitchNY Program Now

    Tribeca Film Institute's Fourth Annual PitchNY Program Kicks Off (EXCLUSIVE)

    College students and recent alumni in New York can apply to Tribeca Film Institute’s 4th annual PitchNY program, an effort to help young, diverse directors, producers and writers fine-tune their pitching skills, as well as to connect them with entertainment industry professionals who will serve as mentors. On Thursday, Tribeca Film Institute announced that applications [...]

  • La-camarista

    ‘The Chambermaid’ Cleans Up in the U.S.

    SANTIAGO, Chile — Call it the “Roma” effect but Mexican newcomer Lila Aviles’ engaging portrait of a hotel servant, “The Chambermaid” (“La Camarista”) has found outstanding reception in the U.S. and in multiple territories, giving hope to other arthouse films from Latin America and elsewhere that seek distribution in “fortress America.” “‘Roma’ was a beautiful, brawny and [...]

  • Beograd 20.03.2012 Milutin Petrovic, reditelj, scenarista,

    Lost Script by ABC Studios Editor Turned Into Movie and Series 'Bad Blood'

    An ambitious new Serbian feature film and 10-part television series set in the Ottoman Empire of the 19th century has emerged from a long lost script by a former editor at ABC Studios in New York City. Belgrade-based This and That Productions is producing “Bad Blood,” based on the works of renowned Serbian writer Borisav [...]

  • Gael Garcia Bernal on the Power,

    Gael Garcia Bernal on the Power, Responsibility of Cinema to ‘Provoke’

    Gael García Bernal said acting for the likes of Oscar winners Alejandro González Iñárritu and Alfonso Cuarón helped groom him for the director’s chair and praised cinema as “the only medium” that allows artists to “explore the gray areas” in unparalleled ways. “The world is so full of certainties now, and cinema is the one that [...]

  • Gareth Jones

    Samuel Goldwyn Films Takes North American Rights to Berlin Competition Title 'Mr Jones'

    Samuel Goldwyn Films has taken North American rights on Agnieska Holland’s “Mr. Jones,” it announced Thursday. The period thriller debuted in competition at the Berlin Film Festival in February. Set on the eve of the Second World War, “Mr. Jones” stars James Norton as the eponymous character, an ambitious young journalist who travels to Moscow [...]

  • Live Action Mulan

    China Uses Disney's 'Mulan' to Attack Hong Kong Protests

    Although Twitter and Facebook have taken steps to stop what they say is a Chinese state-backed misinformation campaign about the anti-government protests in Hong Kong, similar content from suspicious accounts continues to proliferate widely, some of it co-opting Disney‘s new “Mulan“ to try to discredit the demonstrators. At the same time, China‘s government-controlled media are [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content