J.Edgar artwork by Mister Gee

J. Edgar

J. Edgar artwork by Mister Gee

Director: Clint Eastwood / Screenplay: Dustin Lance Black / Editing: Joel Cox / DP: Tom Stern

Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio / Armie Hammer / Naomi Watts / Judi Dench / Josh Lucas / Adam Driver

Year: 2011

A Hoover that sucks AND blows


I can only imagine the excitement when screenwriter Dustin Lance Black got the call from his agent, telling him that his passion-project of a script, about divisive FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover had found a director, in none-other than Clint Eastwood.

The champagne must’ve flowed like, err, wine, that night…

The good news kept coming. Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar? Uh, okay. Sure. Naomi Watts for the chaste secretary? Always reliable and the camera loves her. Armie Hammer as Hoover’s unacknowledged life partner and erstwhile deputy at the FBI? Why not? And while we’re at it, why not throw-in Judi Dench as Hoover’s overbearing mother…

Green-lights all round, I’d imagine, so it’s a disappointment to report that the resulting film is just that: disappointing.

GlassesSo who was he, this J. Edgar Hoover and why would he warrant a biopic from none-other than Eastwood? A complex character to say the least, Hoover was the precociously young, fifth Director of the Bureau of Investigation and would remain in-post, from 1924 to his death in 1972, overseeing its transformation from an under-funded ‘fringe’ agency, regarded with derision by regular police forces, to a respected pillar of the American law enforcement community. That the ‘FBI’ (the Bureau was ‘federalised’ in 1935) owes its very existence today, to Hoover’s tireless striving for credibility, is not in-doubt. Eastwood’s picture shows us glimpses of key developments, that built the FBI’s reputation, such as the pursuit of ‘celebrity’ bank-robbers and the investigation of the kidnap of the youngest child of famed aviator, Charles Lindbergh.

However, J. Edgar’s actual involvement in these cases was as administrator rather than an active field agent, so concentrating on these alone, would only have given us the dullest of office-dramas. It’s just as well, that Hoover-the-man, had a secret life he maintained to the end…

An only child, J. Edgar lived with his mother, Annie, until her death in 1938, yet her passing did not open the floodgates of a hitherto-repressed emotional life for her son. Instead, J. Edgar was content – if the film & rumours are to be believed – with a deep attachment to Clyde Tolson (Hammer), a man with little prior, relevant experience, whom he appointed Associate Director in 1930 and who, despite suffering a debilitating stroke, would stay in-post until shortly after Hoover’s death; a term of forty-two years. Theirs was an apparent, though discreet love-affair, managed at a time when being openly gay was illegal. It must’ve taken courage for these two men to have maintained their loving bond for so long, even if it would appear their love was never consummated physically.

On the other hand, the prissy, vindictive Hoover as depicted in Eastwood’s film, is not above resorting to blackmailing powerful figures in Washington DC, both to ensure a continual absence of Governmental oversight at the Bureau and, by extension, avoiding any questions regarding his private life.

GlassesSo with all that going on in the shadows, screenwriter Black had a choice to make: narrow-down to a defining moment in J. Edgar’s career (e.g. the ‘Lindbergh baby’) and use that as a springboard to touch at the darkness underneath, or try a broad-brush approach with a traditional biopic…

In the end, he went with the biopic, but this immediately generates its own problems. J. Edgar’s career spanned damn-near fifty years and because the framing device chosen, is having Hoover dictate his memoirs to a junior agent, it means we get to see an awful lot of DiCaprio in some truly gruesome old-man prosthetics, along with his two leads; no-one comes out of their make-up here with honours and/or credibility. On the plus side, it shows what can be done with flesh-coloured Play-Doh...

The other issue I have, is with Black’s script. In going for a sweeping biopic of such a potentially-rich character, you risk spreading yourself too thin, which is the case here. Eastwood’s stately direction of Black’s unfocused screenplay shows us a bit of everything, yet leaves us starved of anything meatier. There’s no weight to proceedings, with Hoover’s closest companions, reduced to mere ciphers in a shaggy-dog story.

Longtime personal secretary Miss Gandy (Watts) remains an enigma throughout the picture; the script giving her no agency or room to breathe, except for a brief shot at the end, as she’s shredding the Boss’s personal files.

Tolson (Armie Hammer) is even more opaque in Black’s telling. The man was Hoover’s deputy for over forty years and his (unofficial) life-partner, yet Black eludes to nothing about his background, or character, other than his Alma Mater and initial training in the law. The argument can be made, of course, that this is Hoover’s picture, not Tolson’s, but when someone plays such a pivotal role in the development of your leading subject, I would think there’s every reason to learn more. After all, by showing our two male leads open-up to each other, you reveal deeper, richer characters. As it is, what’ve we got in Tolson? A passive wallflower who’s content to steal one kiss from Hoover in their forty years together?

These two men never missed either a lunch or dinner date in all that time and had but-one stolen kiss? Like so much of this picture, it’s artistic licence and I don’t buy it for a moment

GlassesDiCaprio’s interpretation of J. Edgar, isn’t as deranged as commonly believed, either. Along with his rumoured homosexuality, went an apparent predilection for cross-dressing; an area ripe for exploitation by a more fearless Director (and writer), but Eastwood contents himself with just one scene when J. Edgar tries-on his mother’s dress and pearls, before breaking-down into a primal scream of anguish at her loss. Frustratingly it’s just one scene, unconnected with any other. Had it echoed throughout the rest of the story, then its inclusion would’ve been justified, but as it is, it just feels gratuitous.

Which brings me back around to Eastwood. I admire his overall filmography as a Director, but his stately directing-style does him no favours on J. Edgar. On the plus side, I like his choice of a desaturated palette for period sequences (even if it does leave you crying-out for some richer tones after a while) and the way certain sequences look. Dragging things down, we have leaden pacing, lack of any real jeopardy in the script or sense of personal development for any character and those aforementioned prosthetic issues. All Hoover has to do, it seems, is balance an anaemic emotional life, with the demands of the day job: that’s it.

There’s nothing else here.

GlassesAfter Gran Torino (2008), with its themes of tolerance and acceptance, it probably seemed a natural fit – A Good Idea – for Eastwood to helm a counterbalancing picture, much like he did pitching Letters From Iwo Jima (2006), against Flags of Our Fathers (2006). Alas, trying to squeeze everything into a snitch under a hundred and forty minutes, would just prove unworkable on this occasion. I think J. Edgar was one of those rare cases, where a stellar Director was attached to the wrong script…

Whether from reasons of vanity, bad-advice or expedience it’s irrelevant. In the end, regardless of how you get there, you end-up with a compromised picture that would’ve worked better as an HBO mini-series, with a cast of relative unknowns and less weight on its shoulders. Crucially, you almost certainly would’ve ended-up with a project afforded the running time needed to put flesh on all the bones of story AND a cast, less in-thrall to someone like Eastwood, and more committed to the cause.

The world still awaits the definitive J. Edgar Hoover biopic…

I’m not interested in getting married. My work comes first.

J. EDGAR  Triple Word / Score: PODGY / STODGY / DODGY / FIVE

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