The most memorable part of my “J. Edgar” viewing experience came from the special features after I had finished watching the film. There are a couple documentaries that come with the package, and one of them includes interviews with the film’s producers, director Clint Eastwood, writer Dustin Lance Black, stars Leonardo DiCaprio (J. Edgar Hoover), Armie Hammer (Hoover’s lover Clyde Tolson), and Naomi Watts (Hoover’s loyal, lifelong secretary Helen Gandy).
When the issue of Hoover’s sexuality came up, it was nothing short of bizarre to listen to almost all of those involved in the production declare that they had no idea whether or not Hoover was gay. They then went on to reinforce the point by stating that for this reason the film didn’t take a position on Hoover’s sexuality. I don’t know what movie they watched, but “J. Edgar” is first and foremost a gay love story between Hoover and Tolson. It’s “Brokeback Mountain” (a film I admire) without explicit sex scenes.
Hoover and Tolson hold hands in secret, share a kiss after a lovers’ quarrel (and some erotic wrestling), and exchange more longing gazes than you’ll see in “Dr. Zhivago.” Also, and contrary to what I remember being told about the film, you do see Hoover wearing a dress.
None of this, however, has anything to do with why the film isn’t very good. Everything wrong with “J. Edgar” is structural. Told in flashback, the first 40-minutes are legitimately fascinating and engaging. Here the story focuses mainly on Hoover’s relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), his rise in the Justice Department, and the events that motivated Hoover into a lifelong pursuit against anyone he saw as a threat to America — especially left-wing radicals and communists. Eventually, he’s made director of a brand new agency, the Federal Bureau of Investigation.
The “rise” of Hoover is good stuff. Eastwood keeps the story turning and DiCaprio — who’s finally living up to the hype around his acting ability — disappears into a role that requires him to age over a number of decades. Unfortunately, although Hoover’s life remains no less fascinating, the rest of the film tries to juggle too many balls at once and we slowly lose interest as the narrative slowly loses focus.
Obviously, Hoover was a complex and interesting man, but the second half devolves into a scattershot as it tries to capture every aspect of him. There’s Hoover’s increasingly troubled relationship with his mother; his love for Tolson, and the sexual and religious confusion that causes. There’s also the professional side of the man’s mercenary political instincts and willingness to do anything to hold on to power. And as if that wasn’t enough, throw in his fascination with celebrity and celebrities, a growing “paranoia” with the red menace, and the eventual fall that comes with his misreading of the American people’s acceptance of Martin Luther King.
You don’t need me to point out the many themes Eastwood wants to explore here, but it ends up being too much. At the end of the day you want to be able to say that a film is about THIS. While the love story frames the plot, I honestly couldn’t tell you, in a thematic sense, what “J. Edgar” is “about.” I guess it’s about many things, but so many that not a single one is satisfying or feels complete.
The production value is quite impressive and the performances are all good, although Dench’s overbearing and very Christian mother lacks dimension and spark. The weakest performance, though, is not the fault of the actor, but the scenes involving President Nixon play more like a “Saturday Night Live” parody. Yeah, we get it, Nixon swore a lot.
“J. Edgar” isn’t uninteresting, it just can’t live up to the promise it makes in the first forty-minutes. I’ve always felt that Gary Sinise needed to complete a trilogy or biopics about impactful 20th Century American icons, and I always hoped he would top off “George Wallace” and “Truman” with “Hoover.” But I think he still could. Because “J. Edgar” tries to do so much, you’re left with the sense the real story of J. Edgar Hoover has yet to be told.
“J. Edgar” is available for sale at Amazon in so many formats I don’t know where to begin: Blu-ray, DVD, UltraViolet, Digital Download.