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'J. Edgar': At The FBI, Many A Question About Hoover

<strong>Is This Thing On?</strong> Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't get far trying to make sense of the FBI's founding director in <em>J. Edgar.</em>
Keith Bernstein
Warner Bros. Pictures
Is This Thing On? Leonardo DiCaprio doesn't get far trying to make sense of the FBI's founding director in J. Edgar.

In Clint Eastwood's fatally cautious J. Edgar, three of Hollywood's sexiest stars bring on the chastity to play the triumvirate that set up America's domestic intelligence system.

"My work comes first," says prim secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) after a rather unusual date with a young J. Edgar Hoover. (He's played, as you will have heard, by Leonardo DiCaprio, if you can find him under heavy eyebrows and several tons of pancake.)

Hoover has lunged awkwardly in the general direction of Miss Gandy's lips, but both the date and the lunge lack all conviction, and the air is thick with their mutual relief when she turns him down.

Thus is the groundwork laid for a lifelong partnership uncluttered by anything so messy as an animal instinct. Enter, hoping for a little more action with his boss, Hoover's sidekick Clyde Tolson, who's played by Armie Hammer with just enough saucy innuendo to make you want a whole lot more.

Like Hoover himself, though, J. Edgar is mostly dry-as-dust business. Handsomely upholstered in period browns and grays, the movie puts its head down and plods conscientiously through the well-known milestones of Hoover's career: from his childhood with his ambitious virago of a mother (Judi Dench), through the Red-baiting years and then the organized-crime-fighting years (a few lackluster explosions ensue). On, then, through his obsession with tracking the night-lives of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr., arriving at last at his queasy standoffs with Nixon — the hatred was mutual — and his sorry finale as a doped-up geezer who refuses to retire long after his day is done.

That's a lot of 20th century to pack into anyone's biodrama, and the movie's slack pacing and choppy leaps back and forth in time will only confuse moviegoers too young to know their history. If there's an Oscar waiting in the wings for J. Edgar, it will go to the heroic folks in makeup.

It's easy to see what attracted Eastwood, a lifelong libertarian, to the story of a government bureaucrat who dedicated his life to invading Americans' privacy and violating their civil rights. But Eastwood's portrait of Hoover's many contradictions rarely goes beyond conventional biography. J. Edgar follows the consensus view of its subject: that Hoover was married to his job, that he was a techno-bureaucrat whose obsession with fingerprinting and forensics expanded the reach of American surveillance well beyond his own passion for smoking out radicals, crime bosses and oversexed politicians with more charisma in their little fingers than this prissy suit of a man would ever achieve.

<strong>Domestic Asset:</strong> Armie Hammer's Clyde Tolson (left, with DiCaprio and Judi Dench as Hoover's mother, Annie) is an unexpectedly sympathetic presence in an otherwise unconvincing film.
Keith Bernstein / Warner Bros. Pictures
Warner Bros. Pictures
Domestic Asset: Armie Hammer's Clyde Tolson (left, with DiCaprio and Judi Dench as Hoover's mother, Annie) is an unexpectedly sympathetic presence in an otherwise unconvincing film.

Like so many fanatics, Hoover was as blind to his own failings as he was intolerant of those of others. Covering the well-documented vagaries of his personality, Eastwood is at pains to shows us what an unreliable narrator and hypocrite Hoover was.

Yet one question J. Edgar never asks is why a man of so little vision or imagination exercises such a powerful hold on the public imagination to this day. And surely film is the medium in which to ask the question: Down the years Hoover has been portrayed by literally dozens of big-league actors, from Ernest Borgnine through Bob Hoskins and Kelsey Grammer and now to DiCaprio, whose serviceable performance in this serviceable movie will surely go down as one of the least definitive.

Perhaps inevitably, J. Edgar only wakes up, and then all too gingerly, when it sidles up to the question of Hoover's sexual orientation. Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black — who clearly had a lot more fun writing Milk than here, where even when holding hands Hoover and Tolson sound as if they're reading memos to one another — embrace the theory that Hoover was a closet case too terrified of his sexuality to act on it.

The movie does cater briefly to rumors of cross-dressing, but only to demonstrate that Hoover's heart belonged first and forever to Mama, entertainingly rendered by Dench as a monster mom whose ambition for her appallingly compliant son is topped only by her homophobia — and by her frigid disapproval when her prodigy fails to bring back the kidnapped Lindbergh baby alive.

Whether Hoover and Tolson actually became lovers in real life remains a mystery. In the movie, at least, Tolson was wise to Hoover's illegal espionage activities, his false claims of having arrested John Dillinger and other crime bosses himself, his vile racism, and his intermittently shabby betrayals of Tolson himself.

Tolson was no saint, and the movie offers no sense of why, other than getting close to power, he was attracted to an automaton as emotionally stunted as Hoover. Yet Hammer, fresh off his sprightly turn as the horrid Winkelvoss twins in The Social Network, is so persuasive — both as a smooth young blade on the make and as a gnarled old gent making his peace with the flawed man he has chosen to adore — that he redeems this lumbering quasi-history and brings it to life as a surprisingly tender love story.

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Ella Taylor is a freelance film critic, book reviewer and feature writer living in Los Angeles.