Had Oliver Stone directed the life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, there’s no telling how many conspiracies would have marched across the screen.
Clint Eastwood is a different brand of director. He’s more nuanced, more reasonable, and he won’t let his knee jerk while telling a complicated story.
Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is all richer for the director’s cautious instincts. We re-learn why Hoover is both celebrated and mocked thanks to a powerhouse turn by Leonardo DiCaprio as the nation’s longest-serving FBI director.
“J. Edgar” ultimately seems disinterested in Hoover as a law man or rule breaker. The film trots out a series of arguments for and against his hard-line tactics, not bothering to weigh in on either side of the ledger. Instead, it frames a love story between two men who cannot act on their urges – or even admit them out loud.
“J. Edgar” opens with the hoariest of storytelling devices – Hoover himself dictating his life story to a typist drone. We flash back to Hoover’s first few years with the Federal Bureau of Investigations, a time when the Communist movement was first commanding his attention. Right away, Hoover sees the infiltration as a movement that must be snuffed out, and it doesn’t matter how many rules must bend to make that happen.
Hoover rises up the FBI ranks with impressive speed, the only roadblock coming when a dainty FBI peer (Naomi Watts) rebuffs his clumsy advances. From there, we get a dollop of American History 101 – from the Lindbergh baby theft to Hoover wrangling with Attorney General Robert Kennedy. Even better, we see how Hoover dragged the bureau into the modern age, focusing on fingerprint research and other forensic tools to serve the public good.
The film’s chronological time line gets tortured by screenwriter Dustin Lance Black of “Milk” fame. Some flashbacks make sense, while others keep us at a distance from the subject at hand. That leaves a series of clipped but rewarding sequences, all held together by DiCaprio’s impressive transformation into a man incapable of giving lawbreakers an inch. Yet “J. Edgar” ignores some ripe chapters from the 20th century, like Sen. Joe McCarthy’s Communist hunt.
“McCarthy was an opportunist, not a patriot,” Hoover huffs.
Hoover pours all of his energy into his job, but he’s gobsmacked when he meets a fellow agent named Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Their bond matures over time, and it’s here where Eastwood takes the utmost of care not to overstep his duty to history. Those who refuse to believe the FBI chief led a closeted life won’t like the bigger picture rendered here, but even in a scene where Hoover and Tolson fight, and then briefly wrestle, Eastwood keeps a steely grip on the proceedings.
“J. Edgar” strips the screen of any color that might distract from Hoover himself, leaving a muted palette full of dark blues, browns and gray. He stages a few tense stand-offs to pump up the storytelling volume, including incidents when Hoover wanted to show he was as tough as the agents who broke down doors to nab the bad guys.
Such gimmickry can’t hide how poorly the screenplay illustrate Hoover’s evolution from young crime fighter to FBI chief willing to smash laws to get the job done. The best Black can do is paint Hoover’s mother (Judi Dench) in uniformly cruel tones, handcuffing the Oscar-winning actress in a role ill-suited for her talents.
Hollywood routinely tries – and fails – to convincingly age actors to tell tales that span the decades. Here, DiCaprio is burdened with layers of latex, and yet both the presentation and the actor underneath are darn near flawless.
For all of Hoover’s accomplishments, his life story doesn’t translate into a sweeping epic of consequence. Instead, “J. Edgar” is like a Merchant/Ivory romance, one told with furtive glances, the occasional caress and the knowledge that love isn’t enough to beat back societal expectations.