J. Edgar (review)

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Armie Hammer and Leonardo DiCaprio in J Edgar

Sexual Politics

If there’s one thing that comes across stridently and passionately from Clint Eastwood’s curiously blah biopic J. Edgar, it is this: Leonardo DiCaprio really wants an Oscar. And Clint Eastwood would really like to be the director who gets him one.
I don’t mean to make fun of Leo, because I think he’s shaping into quite a fine actor indeed, and I have every confidence that he will one day win an Oscar that no one will doubt he deserves. But his Actorly Performancing as an Important Historical Personage should not be the dominant thing one gets hit over the head with. His performance — which is very good, and the only reason at all to see the film — should be the grease making the gears of a well-crafted tale slip smoothly past one another. We shouldn’t notice it… but we do, because the gears here are clanking. Not because they lack grease, obviously, but because they simply don’t fit together the way gears should.

I mean, really: J. Edgar Hoover. J. Edgar Hoover. His name still inspires shudders and chills and shakes of the head and awe and frustration. One of the most storied, most rumored-upon, most powerful, most mysterious Americans of the 20th century. He is an enormously complicated man, and one whose influence cannot be overstated. As J. Edgar touches upon — albeit much too briefly — he helped pushed law enforcement in the United States into the modern age, by demanding a scientific approach of fingerprints and forensics, and one that recognized the realities of a nation of quasi-independent states in a world becoming more and more interconnected: the U.S. needed, in the post-WWI era, a true federal police force with real teeth and genuine authority. These are good things. In many ways — which, again, J. Edgar just barely notes before moving on — Hoover was a geek, in the best sense of the word, in a way that encompassed a compelling and fascinating foresight into the way the future would work, and how important information would be. In one early scene, Hoover (DiCaprio: Inception, Shutter Island) takes a date to the Library of Congress and excitedly shows off the cataloguing system he had helped implement a few years before. It’s a weird sort of enthusiasm, but precisely the kind that was required of someone who would do what Hoover did: invent the FBI out of whole cloth… or, at least, out of some scraps of the Department of Justice, which had no idea quite what to make of Hoover.

So, there’s that: Hoover was, in these ways, a man ahead of his time. And in another way, too: He was gay, by all evidence, and certainly by the stance of Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) script, but was unable to live openly in the manner he would have liked. And yet J. Edgar is oddly circumspect about this side of Hoover: it gives us his associate director of the FBI, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer: The Social Network), in a best-working-pal sort of relationship, entirely lacking in anything that even touches on a more personal, more romantic connection, so much so that when Tolson finally explodes in one scene late in the film in reaction to Edgar’s suggestion that he might get married, it’s embarrassing — it does not seem at all justified by anything we’ve seen before. That neither Edgar or Clyde are interested in women has been hinted at — the Library of Congress scene, for one, is intended partly as an indication of Hoover’s utter cluelessness of what do around women — but it simply hasn’t been the centerpiece of what we might expect of any 21st-century biopic of Hoover.

It’s not that J. Edgar doesn’t approach ideas such as that Hoover’s obsession with ferreting out the secrets of the powerful was a product of his own huge secret: it just shies away from them in the next moment. (The film also, unforgivably, cannot be bothered with even the slightest indication as to why Tolson or Hoover’s devoted secretary [Naomi Watts: You Will Meet a Tall Dark Stranger, The International] would abet his bullying for so many decades.) It hasn’t got anywhere near the nerve to suggest that if Hoover hadn’t had to repress his sexuality, he might not have been the frankly monstrous toad he turned into… and it also hasn’t the nerve to suggest that Hoover might have, at some point, grown the fuck up and taken some responsibility for himself even if the deck was stacked against him. In striving to acknowledge that no one’s selfhood is defined entirely by one’s sexuality, J. Edgar misses a chance to develop a story about thwarted sexuality as something that impacts us all.

Because there’s that, too: Hoover laid the groundwork for the American police state, which maybe he wouldn’t have done if the world he lived in didn’t make him hate himself. Or maybe he would have been a cruel, bitter, petty man anyway. We can never know with regards to the real Hoover. It would have been nice, though, if J. Edgar had some opinion on the matter.

That’s J. Edgar, then: It’s not about a towering personality brought down to human levels that let us understand him, maybe feel sympathy or pity or even revulsion (not about his gayness but about how he twisted his repression into something ugly). It’s just about the man cut into random, unconnected bits and pieces. It would be improvement if Hoover here were cartoonish. Because he’s just cardboard. And no matter how good DiCaprio is, he can’t invent an engaging story if it’s not there in the script. J. Edgar is too staid and static, and too unfocused, to make us feel much of anything at all.

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