Whatever respect you feel for Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio, or even Warner Brothers (its distributor), I think you know that a $35 million dollar movie about J. Edgar Hoover, running over two hours (it often feels longer), is going to face this issue: Are we going to see Hoover in drag? You can argue that many things about this man are more important, but a movie is a movie. It depends on things it can show us, and this one runs the risk of “explaining” Hoover’s vicious pursuit of power (or his overcoming of insecurity) in terms of sexual repression. That’s a way of making a story out of the life. But Eastwood is anxious to cling on to taste. This may come as a spoiler, but the eventual money shot betrays the reticence or timidity in J. Edgar. It has nothing to do with Hoover in some gay situation. Instead, when his mother dies (she is played by Judi Dench), J. Edgar puts on her dress over his own clothes. It’s a clever compromise, and DiCaprio plays the scene with anguish and skill, but I don’t know how we’re meant to read it except as apologia or answer.
Over the years, Eastwood has been an adroit producer, but why did he attempt this picture, without a trace of identifying passion? Doesn’t he need to admire his protagonists? He has said that, growing up in the 30s, he heard so much about Hoover, and Hoover surely liked to be told he was the most important man in the world. Eastwood has also indicated, gently, that he was impressed with the chance to tell a story that reflected on the over-zealous aspects of our modern security state. But when I say “gently” I mean that Eastwood has made his point tentatively—far more cautiously, in fact, than Robert Redford, earlier this year, in the inept The Conspirator (about Mary Surratt).
It’s as if Eastwood wants to play fair with everyone, which seems high-minded, but ends up evasive on the screen. For a start, the script by Dustin Lance Black (who wrote Milk) never comes to terms with how fully it needs to say who Hoover was and what he did. Hoover died in 1972 (aged seventy-seven), when only death could get him out of the directorship of the FBI. But I don’t think today’s young audience knows more than the gossip and I fear that many viewers will find this biopic confusing. It uses the format of Hoover dictating his memoir (dull and done to death), but then it jumps back and forth in time in ways that are hard to follow. We get the Palmer raids of 1919, but little context. There are some gangster arrests, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby, and Kennedy’s assassination. But we don’t get McCarthyism (beyond a passing reference to the senator from Wisconsin), we don’t get the Second World War, the full nature of the battle with the Kennedys, or a clear indictment on detection techniques that carried out a war against alleged subversives while letting professional criminals and civil rights go hang. So we have Hoover getting the news from Dallas on November 22, 1963, and passing it on to RFK, but no sense of why he might have felt horrified that day.
If you’re going to make a big picture about Hoover, and if you’re getting such a committed performance from DiCaprio, isn’t it worth laying out the Hoover career as it happened—isn’t it worth leveling the charge of a madness that came to infect so many levels of government? In DiCaprio’s performance, and Eastwood’s equivocal tone, there is a wish to be objective or fair, and to say that J. Edgar’s disturbance just got out of hand. For his analyst, that might be persuasive. But if you’re making a dramatic movie, then you need more confidence in Hoover’s evil. The picture feels realistic (despite its studied draining away of color), but it should have gone for nightmare, savagely expressive color and neurosis in its design. Every place this Hoover lives is like his office—clean, orderly, and the embodiment of efficient emptiness. That becomes boring to look at and the film could have gained if one place, his bedroom, say, was a seething, untouched chaos. I don’t claim that was the case in life, but I don’t care. This film is begging for melodramatic meat and honest pretending (such as DiCaprio gives it). The lack of color and the rigid décor make it harder to watch, and leaves DiCaprio’s gargantuan performance stranded.
I’m not even calling for lurid gay moments with Hoover. But it needs more than a few delicate, measured touches. There should be more scenes like the hysteria of one quarrel with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a sudden plunge into emotional pain. And it requires some better way of dealing with Helen Gandy. She entered Hoover’s life as a typist and became his secretary. There’s a good scene where he tries to woo her by demonstrating his new card catalogue system at the Library of Congress. It plays with charm until Hoover seeks a kiss. Then Helen draws back and denies him—while making it clear that she’d love to be his secretary. This thankless role is taken by Naomi Watts, who discovers more than you would have thought possible, because the film never dares explain Gandy. Was she another nut, who outlived J. Edgar, and then destroyed his private files, as he had requested? That seems to have happened in life. At the same time, Watts (in brilliant aging make-up) reacts silently to Hoover’s mounting paranoia, but with pained disapproval. That’s how she’s been directed. So why did she destroy the files that might have settled Hoover’s reputation in history?
It makes for a distant, unsatisfying movie and one that may find small audiences. Oliver Stone’s Nixon has many faults, but it is charged with unbridled psychotic energy such as was needed here. The Hoover material is ugly and very American, and it might have made an authentic monster story. But the picture offered is muddled, cautious, and at cross purposes. Eastwood seems overly impressed by his own quest for class and judicial balance. If you want a clue to that restraint, listen to the score—a sparse, stifled, yet sentimental piano, written by the director himself.
David Thomson is the author of The New Biographical Dictionary of Film and The Moment of Psycho: How Alfred Hitchcock Taught America to Love Murder.