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.