By Michael S. Goldberger, film critic
It’s a funny thing about our current place in human evolution. The first thing most folks ask when I tell them I’ve just seen Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar” is, “Was he gay? Did he wear a dress?” Ignoring for a moment the powerful force in American domestic affairs Hoover played, I answer, “looks like it,” but apologize for not knowing the dress size.
Actually, it’s a bit more complicated. Eastwood’s biopic is responsible, reliable, methodical and chock full of integrity…all attributes its protagonist would have liked Americans to cite when describing him. He was a force to be contended with, a true original in many ways, but hardly innovative when it came to keeping his ego in check.
Yet, he’s one of the names on that list of people that have shaped the tenor and timber, good and bad, of our still rather young country. And while his specific story does hold fascinations Eastwood studiously mines, ultimately his is a tale of power, replete with savvy and astute paragraphs detailing its use, abuse and proclivity to corrupt absolutely.
In other words, Clint puts in the rumored window dressing, so to speak, because there’s obviously some truth to it, but never solely for its potentially lurid appeal. He weaves through his film the thought that the whole thing may have been a function of J. Edgar’s relationship with his domineering and eccentric mother, superbly played by Judi Dench.
Embodying all the inherent complexities and anomalies that comprised the man who built the FBI and pioneered modern criminal investigation as we know it, the youthful, almost pretty Leonardo DiCaprio brilliantly morphs into the much feared, iconic bulldog. So, while the film may not do all that well, get the tux ready, Leo. This may be your year.
Though the makeup is hardly realistic on the otherwise splendid Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s alleged lover, or on the equally stellar Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, his longtime confidante and secretary, it fits Mr. DiCaprio like a glove. Never caricature or camp, he is hindered only by what we don’t know. And aye, there’s the rub.
A great irony deleterious to Mr. Eastwood’s cause, this is a tale of confidences that, for all its forthcoming and good intentions, fails to unearth its own big secret. We learn about the clandestine file he kept…the skinny on people just in case it might come in handy one rainy day. But even that’s been learned inadvertently. We need more stones upturned.
Still, this is the kind of film you hope viewers looking for something more sensational will stumble on just the same. Don’t let them know it, but it’s a mite educative. And in a country where the average Joe can tell you where Miley Cyrus will be playing Friday night, but can’t name the vice president, we need all the history lessons we can get.
Occasionally the chronology gets a bit challenging as Eastwood plays with the flashback button. Yet profs teaching The U.S. in the 20th Century and looking for a breather should have no compunction about substituting “J. Edgar” for a lecture one fine afternoon. Why not spring for some popcorn, too? For some, it may be the only thing they remember.
It’s as exciting a period as any, and Eastwood, working from a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”), paints his America with scholarly care. Alternating broad and fine brushstrokes, he posits an intriguing view of the Lindbergh kidnapping. Philadelphia lawyer-sly, he deserves kudos from the ACLU for the shadows of a doubt he casts.
The film is also big and colorful with superb, era-specific costumes, neat sets and all the appurtenances necessary to evoke the mood of the age. Late in the film, DiCaprio’s autocrat, now coming under some scrutiny, reminds what dangers threatened democracy earlier in the century…that there is a case for judging men by the times that shaped them.
We’re not so sure. But while taking the theory under advisement, we nonetheless find a sympathetic corner in our hearts for the double-edged sword Hoover represents. He is both egomaniacal despot and the momma’s boy who wanted to do good…to be loved and remembered for protecting and preserving the institutions we too often take for granted.
Too bad it’s a bit plodding. Too bad it doesn’t unleash that great, maybe even scandalous surprise. And too bad we’ve been whipped into a microwave-ready, I-info impatience of the mind. This is Clint Eastwood and not Oliver Stone. So it won’t leave you dizzied. But while we may not actually realize it when viewing “J. Edgar,” we’re all the better for it.
“J. Edgar,” rated R, is a Warner Bros. Pictures release directed by Clint Eastwood and stars Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Judi Dench. Running time: 137 minutes
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