In spite of a fusillade of PR overkill about what a brave, risk-taking actor he is, and how he spent five hours a day in a makeup chair squirming, Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrait of a balding, sweaty, gristle-chewing, half-mad J. Edgar Hoover is gimmicky playacting. J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s exhausting chronicle of power obsession about the enigmatic, self-serving egomaniac who, as director of the FBI, kept America trembling with terror for the better part of a century under the phony guise of patriotism, is a long, tedious and hollow disappointment.
Eastwood is too old to tackle a personality so complex; he knows nothing about what it takes to turn the character flaws of a cross-dressing Mama’s boy into an attention-craving closet queen like Hoover. And how many prosthetics do we have to endure to watch DiCaprio fake his way through roles such as Howard Hughes and the forthcoming Frank Sinatra and Jay Gatsby—roles for which he is totally unsuited. For now, we have another miscalculation in a bloodless film about a monster more pathetic than dangerous, with a rambling screenplay by Oscar-winning writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) that meanders all over the place unable to tell a story with any kind of narrative coherence. It’s not that J. Edgar is such a bad movie. But it is boring and ineffectual. There’s no passion behind it.
From his early days in the Justice Department to his death in 1972 at age 77, the movie leans heavily on makeup to show boyish, cherubic DiCaprio in every phase of a controversial life. Hoover rose to glory until 1935, when he was appointed as the first director of the newly organized FBI. For the next 36 years he made all the rules, sodomized the Constitution, declared war on everything he disliked from “Bolshevik radicals” to Martin Luther King Jr., set back the progress of the civil rights movement, used force to root out every suspected Communist and arrested 4,000 people. Yes, he initiated a lot of crime-fighting technology, including fingerprints, wire-tapping and forensics labs. But he also used the FBI to intimidate celebrities, harass political activists, and illegally collect secret files against everyone from mob bosses to Marilyn Monroe. Insanely jealous, he ruined the careers of special FBI agents, such as Chicago’s Melvin Purvis, the man who tracked down and killed John Dillinger while Hoover took the credit. Soft-soaping his corruption, the movie barely touches on these facts and refuses to take a stand on his hypocrisy.
While ranting homophobic prejudices against gays, he was a closet homosexual who carried on a private love affair with assistant deputy FBI director Clyde Tolson (played softly by Armie Hammer, who appeared as the twins in The Social Network). Inseparable, the two men are shown kissing only one time in their 40-year relationship. Despite eyewitness accounts of Hoover’s passion for cross-dressing, fueled by his dominating mother (Judi Dench, flawless again), he is revealed posing with his mother’s necklace and silk dress against his chest only once.
Unable or unwilling to expose the elements that made him interesting (Eastwood has ill-advisedly declared Hoover’s private life “none of my business”), the film plods along without the courage of its convictions. This is one of the major flaws in a film that compiles a lot of research with no dramatic payoff. Without a clear narrative arc, the script leads us astray in a series of endless distractions. In the form of notes dictated for a memoir that was never published, the different periods in Hoover’s reign are framed in episodes connected with an unwieldy precision, giving DiCaprio myriad chances for double facials, young and old.
Hooked on amphetamine injections, he ended his career a graying, miserable wreck, still craving the affection of the American people. Was he ever happy? Even in the end, as two sick, doddering old men, Hoover and Tolson were never able to admit their love.
When Hoover died, president Richard Nixon went apoplectic. “Seal off his office, change the locks, do what you have to do—I want those fucking files!” he ordered. But they were gone. The only two people who saw through him were his secret lover Clyde and his private secretary, Helen Gandy (a wasted Naomi Watts) who is last seen shredding all of his files before Nixon could get to them.
As a colorful chapter in American infamy it’s a story worth telling in a better, more suspenseful film, but J. Edgar does not hang together. DiCaprio’s King of the G-Men is something of a sawed-off pipsqueak with a mean-spirited and ruthless pursuit of personal glory at everyone else’s expense. I expected more from a movie about the most feared man in America for half a century. Whatever else you think about him, in retrospect, he had balls of brass—an essential quality replaced in J. Edgar by dull indifference.