Clint Eastwood directs Leonard DiCaprio in his most recent shot at the Oscar with J. Edgar, an interesting mess of a movie.
Memories of J. Edgar Hoover’s (DiCaprio) life serve as the story-telling frame for this movie. It’s at some point in the 1960s that he’s recounting these tales, some of them perhaps more true than others, to a series of young FBI agents tasked with helping him write his memoir. We learn that his career began with the fight of law enforcement against anarchists in the late 1910s and early 1920s. He was instrumental (at least, according to the way the movie lays out his telling of the story) in arresting so-called Bolsheviks and getting anarchists like Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht) deported despite their American citizenship. He is also shown early on as being a stickler for professional law enforcement. Go in with guns, yes, but don’t beat suspects for no reason; collect evidence; tape off crime scenes; collect fingerprints. On the one hand, he’s shown as a kind of a blusterer, all “must fight the reds.” On the other hand, he’s a hard-core nerd — turning the smoking lounge into a crime lab and showing off his card catalog at the Library of Congress with much pride.
But young Hoover does not overflow with confidence, despite his outward forcefulness. He’s still working out a stutter and he is not exactly charming. And then there’s his mother. Annie Hoover (Judi Dench) both thinks J. Edgar should rightfully be the most important man in the country and has very narrow and suffocating opinions on, for example, his love life. J. Edgar’s stab at the kind of life his mother wants for him comes when he proposes to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a Bureau secretary he is on his third date with during the proposal. She’s not interested and, aside from wanting the marriage matter settled, Hoover doesn’t seem particularly interested in the couple part of marrying her either. She ends up his loyal secretary and his deep life-long partnership ends up being with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a dashing man who eventually becomes his assistant director at the FBI. They are — well, something. Lovers? You could certainly infer that. You could also infer that Hoover was so out of touch with his own desires that he didn’t know what he wanted but enjoyed an intimacy with Tolson that wasn’t physical. The movie suggests a variety of possibilities for their relationship but doesn’t really decide what the nature of it is.
So you have two ways this movie could go given the material of Hoover’s life — the man and the man’s role in history. The stuff about the anarchists, the 1930s push to hunt down bank robbers like John Dillinger and Hoover’s determination to find the kidnappers of the Lindbergh baby using scientific investigation techniques all go to how Hoover formed the FBI. He pushed an organization that he called a dumping ground for political appointees and full of men taking bribes from the criminals they claimed to police to become professional, hard-working and nationally respected. The movie even gives us tidbits of how he used popular media — comic books, the movies — to try to get the public on the FBI’s side.
Then there’s the guy. His stunted relationship with his mother seemed to help keep him from dealing in a mature way with his own desires. The movie seems to suggest that while Hoover may actually be gay, he doesn’t fully recognize it. Or, that he may aware that he’s gay but willing to sacrifice love for ambition (you can’t be out and politically powerful in early 20th-century America, so Hoover picks powerful). Either one of these would have been an interesting way to look at Hoover’s character but the movie gives us both and also picks neither. His relationship with Tolson is a big strange mystery — we get why Hoover likes the dazzling and personable Tolson but not why Tolson is interested in the paranoid and fidgety Hoover. Tolson doesn’t even seem all that interested in the FBI. The movie keeps coming back to Hoover’s secret personal files (where he kept his stash of salacious secrets about presidents and others in power), seemingly drawing some kind of connection with the conundrum that was Hoover’s own life. But the secret files (we see him use them to try to blackmail the Kennedys and hear about how he tried to blackmail Roosevelt) seem more about a vise grip on power than some working out of inner turmoil. And the movie touches on the idea that Hoover needed not just to have power but to have public power — he is shown as obsessing about whether other agents have a higher profile than he does.
J. Edgar gives us a little of all of these plot lines but winds up with a satisfying story about none of them. The story about the history could have really explained how the FBI grew — why it fought some criminal elements but not others (the Mafia, violent anti-civil rights groups) — and how that not-so-distant past shaped today. Or the movie could have made some argument about how the personality of this man turned the Bureau into a certain kind of organization. But instead we get fragments of each, with big-time gaps (nothing about World War II? or the Red Scare of the 1950s?) and strange focuses on random incidents (we see a scene where Hoover learns of J.F.K.’s death but then nothing substantial from that hectic decade until we get to a rather inept attempt at blackmailing Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.). We see Tolson and Hoover meet, get a big splashy fight between the two of them and then little more until they’re old. I have, somewhere, a graphic novel biography of Hoover and even though that literally tells its stories in a series of boxes, I remember it feeling more like one flowing narrative than this movie.
Or is this strange disjointed feeling a flaw of something else? As I was watching the movie, I attributed it to weird story construction. But should I be blaming choppy direction from Eastwood? Or very mannered acting by DiCaprio? This movie is so fragmented I can’t even pull together enough evidence for its failures being the fault of a specific element.
J. Edgar gets lucky in that even as a jumble its subject is interesting. But hitting this level of “watchable” does not make it successful. C+
Rated R for brief strong language. Directed by Clint Eastwood and written by Dustin Lance Black, J. Edgar is two hours and 17 minutes long and is distributed by Warner Bros.