In a way, a movie about the founding of the FBI could be considered as an origin story for the whole genre of dystopian science fiction, which wouldn’t exist without the concept of an all-seeing police state. Nobody would expect Clint Eastwood to tell that story, but his new movie, J. Edgar is more thoughtful and even-handed than one might naïvely expect from the self-avowed conservative director. Unfortunately, it’s also structurally muddled, and comes off without making much of a point.
The film follows the career of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) from his early days in the Department of Justice until his death over fifty years later. Most of it is told in flashback from the 1960s, but there are actually two kinds of flashbacks; half of them are Hoover’s dictations of a manuscript for a memoir about the founding of the Bureau through to the close of the Lindbergh Baby case, while the other half are more personal memories. It’s not really confusing, but it’s also not clear why Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black chose this structure, especially since it would be easy to miss the distinction.
Either way, we see Hoover’s enthusiasm of criminal science, as well as for personal loyalty. He enlists Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) as his personal secretary, and Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as his number-two man early in the founding of the bureau. He pushes hard and takes initiative in creating a place for forensic science in the process of solving the Lindbergh case, including a vaguely autistic “wood expert” (the inimitable Stephen Root), of all things.
But we also see Hoover’s willingness to “bend the rules”, including his “personal and confidential” files on notable public figures — often collected with only quasi-legal wiretaps and bugs — which he used to solidify his own power. The irony is not lost that Hoover was only ousted once these tactics had become accepted within certain circles, and he was faced by an even more paranoid man who took the dirty tricks even further than he ever did.
As for the story everyone knows they really want to see — the open secret of Hoover’s homosexuality — the film is good, but far from problematic. While I appreciate Eastwood’s recent statements on the subject of gay marriage, his direction can be less progressive. To his credit, Eastwood directs Hoover’s relationship with Tolson much as I’d imagine he would any chaste heterosexual relationship, and it can be a sweet, touching love story. But the underlying dynamics have all the subtlety of a Freudian; Hoover clings tightly to his strict, moralistic mother (Judi Dench) while suppressing a desire to throw on her dresses, and Tolson descends into limp-wristed histrionics when his position is threatened. On balance, I want to praise the normality with which the relationship is presented while encouraging improvement in the characterizations; this may be as progressive as we can except, considering.
Technically, Eastwood has more than proved himself on period pieces, and it’s a joy to watch the hair, clothes, and décor change from the twenties to the seventies. Black is also carving himself a solid career niche, having previously written Milk. But when the movie falls short in presenting an insightful picture of Hoover himself, it can only fall back on making some point about the institution whose fate was so entwined with his own, and it’s not clear that there’s any point to be made here.
Worth It: not quite
Bechdel Test: fail.