It’s difficult to dislike Clint Eastwood. He’s an excellent director and a fine actor, who is openly conservative in a town that often disdains them. Many of Eastwood’s films have avoided politics but his new film “J. Edgar” will likely open up a political debate because of its depiction of J. Edgar Hoover, the long-serving former director of the FBI.
The film begins by showing Hoover- played throughout the years by Leonardo DiCaprio- recounting his early memories to a young writer. He's near the end of his career and wants to tell his side of the story. The film then flashes back to his early memories and shows why Hoover became such an adamant opponent of Communism. At this point, the film goes beyond the caricatures and tries to create a compelling and interesting main character whose ambition seems limitless.
The story eventually shows Hoover’s early rise in the FBI and how his personal charisma led him to achieve success and acclaim. Of particular note is Hoover’s early support for finger-printing, which was often mocked and derided at the time. Hoover also plays a role in the investigation into the disappearance of the Lindberg baby, who was kidnapped in the early 1930’s. When the film focuses on such historical events and Hoover’s fervent anti-Communism, it succeeds admirably.
Unfortunately, the historic narrative is eventually overshadowed by a gay love story involving Hoover and his longtime FBI aide, Cyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film goes from being a historical biopic into a story focused on the rumors between Hoover and Tolson. Such a forbidden relationship eventually consumes the rest of the narrative, leaving some of the more interesting and controversial aspects of Hoover’s career behind.
When I went into the film, I was hoping that director Clint Eastwood would ignore the rumors about Hoover’s sexuality and those about his cross-dressing and focus on the career of one of the most controversial men of the 20th century. Unfortunately, too much of the story is focused on the rumors about Hoover’s personal life. Writer Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for writing the film “Milk,” seems eager to focus on Hoover’s supposed sexuality at the expense of everything else. Such rumors have existed for years but this film will likely add credence to them. Fortunately, news outlets like the Washington Post have tried to clarify the facts behind such myths.
It should be noted that Leonardo DiCaprio does a strong job depicting Hoover from his youth through his last days serving our nation. His performance—which creates a strong-willed but vulnerable character-- will likely earn him an Oscar nomination. Despite his obvious flaws, DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who is trying to do what he believes is best for his country.
J. Edgar Hoover was a controversial figure for good reason. His actions, at times, pushed the limitations of government into places that many Americans are uncomfortable with. I only wish that the story had focused more on such work and the controversies surrounding his career rather than the rumors about his personal life.
“J. Edgar” may be a solid film with a great performance from DiCaprio but it’s not the great biopic that one would expect from a strong director like Eastwood.