He virtually invented the FBI and its predecessor the Bureau of Investigation, bringing forensic science into the modern age and, with the 10 Most Wanted list in every post office, luring the citizen into the crime-stopping process. He oversaw the men who brought down John Dillinger and arrested Lindbergh baby killer Bruno Hauptmann. He tracked down terror suspects and Nazi spies, socialists and civil rights leaders, but couldn’t be bothered rounding up Mafia bosses. He ran the Bureau for 48 years under eight Presidents, some of whom he blackmailed with White House secrets he threatened to spill. The sordid goods he collected on John F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Eleanor Roosevelt helped keep him in power. For most of his adult life, this confirmed bachelor lived with his domineering mother Annie and, when she died, with Clyde Tolson, an FBI Associate Director, who many thought was his lover.
The life and career of John Edgar Hoover should make a juicy movie; and in 1977, just five years after his death, it did: Larry Cohen’s The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover, with James Wainwright as the young Edgar, Broderick Crawford as the elder Hoover, June Havoc as his mother and Dan Dailey as Tolson. Bracingly lurid, the film filters all the political and sexual dirt through an imaginary FBI agent (Rip Torn), who notes that Hoover died just six weeks before the Watergate scandal that eventually toppled his No. 1 enemy of the moment, Richard Nixon. It was, the Torn characters says, “as if J. Edgar Hoover had reached out from the grave” to destroy Nixon. Not until 2005 was it revealed that Bob Woodward’s Deep Throat, source of the most incriminating Watergate leads, was Mark Felt, another Associate Director at the FBI.
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Now Dustin Lance Black, the Oscar-winning screenwriter of Milk, and Clint Eastwood, who’s acquired a few Academy statuettes of his own, have collaborated with Oscar nominee Leonardo DiCaprio to exhume Hoover for a generation that may know little and care less about the antique prosecutor of felons and persecutor of civil liberties. In the mood of the director’s Changeling, the new film addresses a sprawling true story in frustratingly episodic terms, and weaves a meticulous cocoon of period detail around a valiant but miscast star—Angelina Jolie as the working-class mom in Changeling, DiCaprio as Hoover here.
You might expect J. Edgar to trump The Private Files with even ballsier revelations or, taking the high road, more elevated insights. Instead, the film manages to be both sensational and stodgy, like a guided tour that goes on until it drones. In the muted, artfully murky images of cinematographer Tom Stern, Hoover is truly a man in the shadows, a wraith, the G-man as ghost. Black’s script paints Mr. FBI as triple enigma: (1) a keeper and trader of state secrets who (2) zealously hoarded the secret of his presumed homosexuality, and who (3) saw so dimly into his own soul that he was a secret even and especially to himself. As Eastwood told Jon Stewart on The Daily Show last night, “He’s a mystery guy, as far as I’m concerned.” That’s what a director should say before he makes a movie, not after. J. Edgar amasses all the facts, and many of the unverified suppositions, but leaves its subject opaque.
The movie shows its audacity, or betrays its desperation, by begging comparison to a pair of masterpieces. It borrows Citizen Kane‘s narrative structure—hopscotching from the mid-1960s, when Hoover is dictating his memoirs, to the Palmer Raids of 1919 and thence through the ’30s (Lindbergh), early ’60s (a faceoff with Robert Kennedy), the ’20s (building the Bureau), more or less at whim—and, to an extent, Kane‘s multiple points of view, in that it purports to be Hoover’s view of himself but is transparently Black’s. Like Kane, Hoover had a mother (Annie is played by Judi Dench) whom he desperately loved and who held sway on him after her death, and a close male friend (Joseph Cotten’s Jed Leland in Kane, Armie Hammer’s Clyde in J. Edgar) to act as his conscience, confessor and foil. Hoover, because he never married, never had his protégé-wife, his Susan Alexander Kane, but he is shown proposing to a young secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, excellent in the role), who would faithfully run his office until he died.
Kane was, of course, a fictionalized biography of newspaper publisher William Randolph Hearst, who was still very much alive and powerful enough to make Orson Welles’ studio consider burning the Kane negative under threat of Hearst paper reprisals against all RKO films. The Welles film teaches that every man is a mystery, to himself no less than those around him; yet Charles Foster Kane bursts off the screen in all his sad, selfish and seductive contradictions. Eastwood’s Hoover resists, indeed repels audience involvement, of either horror or a hug. He is barely even pitiable—more that cold thing in the corner that attracts little fear and less attention. Where is the fiery intensity, the looming magnificence, that Hoover must have radiated to secure his power from the Presidents who employed him?
Later in the film, J. Edgar discloses its intended affinity to another movie masterpiece: Psycho. After his mother’s death, Hoover wears her dress, talks in her voice (“You stay strong, Edgar”), exactly like Hitchcock’s Norman Bates. Post-mortem, Annie needs two people to take her place: Helen to provide the unstinting devotion, Clyde the emotional intimacy. (Actually, three people, if you include Edgar to slip into her frocks.) Norman Bates, in Robert Bloch’s source novel, was inspired by Ed Gein, the Wisconsin killer and fashioner of trophies from his victims’ bones. J. Edgar‘s Hoover didn’t go that far, but in a way his paranoia is more frightening, considering how much power he wielded. “Oh, he’s psycho,” Jon Stewart said, and Eastwood replied, “Well, he could have been.”
Sure, he could have been a lot of things that make viewers shudder or sympathize or both. But this Hoover would need a more compelling script, a surer directorial hand and a suitable lead actor. Besides Crawford, the list of Hoover impersonators includes Ernest Borgnine (twice), Treat Williams, Jack Warden, Pat Hingle, Bob Hoskins—all solid types, at ease in their bulk and their wielding of force. DiCaprio can do many things, but it takes more than ambition and good intentions for a star so young (he turns 37 this Friday) and so identified with winsome, troubled heroes to slip under Hoover’s skin. Literally: the aging makeup DiCaprio wears as old Edger looks like parchment, not epidermis; and locating the interior of the man proves equally elusive.
DiCaprio does fine work in Hoover’s rash marriage proposal to Helen; it shows the clumsiness of a young man who is self-conscious but not self-aware, and momentarily makes the monster almost endearing. That flare of poignancy is missing from what should be the film’s strongest scene, when Hoover and Tolson—Truman Capote dubbed them “Johnny and Clyde”—briefly fight, and Clyde kisses Edgar on his bloody mouth. It’s jolting, but little else. As Tolson, Hammer purrs and preens, ostensibly as gay as Bill Tilden, but DiCaprio’s Hoover can take little pleasure in the nearness of the man he loves. His performance often has the feeling of a daunting assignment, not an infiltration and inhabiting of the character. The lacunae in the film leave viewers spare time to wonder who might more persuasively play Hoover. Philip Seymour Hoffman?
In the past decade, the trio of artists responsible for this film have accomplished much: DiCaprio in Gangs of New York and The Departed, Black with his Harvey Milk bio-pic and some of the finest episodes of Big Love, Eastwood as director and star of Million Dollar Baby and Gran Torino. May they all rebound and flourish for decades more. We wouldn’t put it past Clint: the man wears his 81 years with handsome grace. But J. Edgar is a blot on their collective résumé. It’s not likely to appear on many critics’ year-end 10 Most Wanted list.
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