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'J. Edgar' review - A biopic with very little to say

J. Edgar Hoover is somewhat enigmatic within the grand narrative of modern American history. His name, though well known, doesn’t much carry a face, and an accurate understanding of his accomplishments and personal life is still, even today, elusive. He’s shown up in popular culture from time to time—I’m thinking mainly of references from the likes of Seinfeld or The Simpsons—but only as a name, very rarely as a man. I suspect that to many born after his death in 1972, his identity is considerably murkier than those of the many presidents he served under, or the movie stars and activist leaders he so relentlessly targeted. History has never quite understood how he should be remembered. It’s tempting to call him an evil man, but if he were so, what then should be said about the citizenry that allowed him so much power and influence for so many decades? Pondering his legacy now, I think it’s downright remarkable that an historical figure like Hoover has remained a specter for so long. I smile at the irony, too—surely a man as obsessed with shadows and secrets wouldn’t have wanted it any other way.

Perhaps the ambivalence surrounding Hoover’s identity was the reason I viewed director Clint Eastwood’s latest bit of Oscar-bait with such regrettable enthusiasm. I must have hoped, on some level, that J. Edgar would provide a definitive account of the man’s life; that Eastwood—himself a noted conservative—would arrange for me the facts of J. Edgar Hoover’s existence into some sort of salient coherence. This did not happen. Rather, Eastwood has crafted a film that takes far too much pleasure in the mystique of its central character, barely attempting (if at all) to illustrate how the cogs in his head turned over the course of a very long and illustrious career.

One of the most remarkable things about Hoover was his ability to manage dirty laundry: although he kept compromising files on the most powerful men in America, his own secrets have remained a relative mystery to this day. Exactly how he accomplished this is the million-dollar question, so it is regrettable that J. Edgar does not offer enough insight to properly answer it. Indeed, the film only touches on Hoover’s trove of secrets here and there, ascribing credit for their containment to his close personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts)—the only woman to whom he ever entrusted the files. She took it upon herself to destroy them immediately following his death. Her extraordinary devotion is never fully explained (she took the secretary job after rejecting his marriage proposal on their third date), but Naomi Watts does a fine job. And Judi Dench turns in a grand performance as Hoover’s chillingly-warped mother, whom the film seems to fault for virtually all of his shortcomings, including his repressed sexuality and alleged penchant for cross-dressing.

As a narrative, the film skips back and forth through flashback, chronicling Hoover during some of the most significant episodes of his career, which took off at age 24 when he was made head of a new intelligence division in the (then-called) Bureau of Investigation. A die-hard and a workaholic, his career ended only when his life did at age 77, and Leonardo DiCaprio plays him at both ends, young and old. He accomplishes this using any number of layers of facial latex with mixed results. Nuanced and calculating as his performance is, I can’t find much fault with Di Caprio per se, but his makeup appears so ridiculous and distracting as to overshadow his talents. I admire Eastwood for denying the role a second performer and pinning it all on a single actor, but the film suffers as a consequence.

Leo shines, however, during scenes of the younger Hoover, and quite frankly, so does the film. The anarchist bombings of 1919 (which targeted Hoover’s then-boss) provide some rousing excitement at the beginning, as does Hoover’s investigation into the kidnapping of the Lindbergh Baby. But excitement finds little room in a film like this that prefers to talk and to explain, rather than to show. Watching J. Edgar is a little like watching a documentary on the History Channel.

The film’s greatest strength is that it views Hoover’s life through the lens of his sexuality. Rumours have circulated since at least the 1940’s that he was a homosexual, and the script (penned by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black) takes hold of that premise and runs with it, focusing much of the film on Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson – his real-life deputy, best friend, and, in all likelihood, lover. Black attempts to elevate their relationship above the tawdry clouds of rumour, and weaves a tale of hopelessly repressed love. For Hoover and Tolson (played by Armie Hammer), their relationship is limited mostly to shopping, eating, and vacationing together, much as the two men did in real life. But the film does treat us to a few tender moments, like a quiet holding of hands in the back of a cab.

These moments may be speculative, but speculation is precisely what J. Edgar lacks. Clint Eastwood has presented the world a version of J. Edgar Hoover that is already familiar, based both on select facts and deep-seated rumours. And it is an incomplete presentation, for the most part ignoring Hoover’s blatant racism, homophobia, and sexism. His most notorious legacy—that of illegal surveillance, blackmailing, and such—is not entirely omitted from this film, but overall Eastwood turns a blind eye towards Hoover’s established evils in the name of telling a story about a man too complicated for anyone to properly understand.

You aren’t going to learn anything about J. Edgar Hoover that Wikipedia can’t tell you in a fraction of the time, and I do not see this film going down in history as one of Eastwood’s most memorable. Save your money.

Rating:  (Mediocre)

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