Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar tends to impress you with its seriousness while you’re watching it. The impression doesn’t last, though. In fact, it comes and goes even during the 2 hours, 17 minutes it takes the movie to pass across the screen. Some parts of it have a kind of near-nobility, others a spirit of sympathetic inquiry, still others an air of sad regret. Then again, some scenes in Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay are just silly, while others are downright ridiculous—drawing derisive hoots from the audience when I saw it (and I found it hard to fault the hooters).
The man who headed the FBI from 1924 (before it was even called “FBI”) until his death in 1972 is played by Leonardo DiCaprio, in a more or less transparent bid for an Oscar. Black’s script is structured almost as if deliberately to provide DiCaprio with a tour de force, hopping as it does from decade to decade and back over J. Edgar Hoover’s prodigious career (which stretched from World War I to Vietnam). Trying to cram that epic span into one movie may have bitten off more than Eastwood and Black could chew; perhaps a feature concentrating more on the 1920s and ’30s—Young Hoover—would have unleashed more of DiCaprio’s energy. As it is, the movie encases DiCaprio in varying layers of makeup. The makeup job is impressive, but the effect is ironically counterproductive—the more the character ages, the younger the actor looks. By the time Hoover is shown at the end of his life, the 36-year-old DiCaprio is looking like a high-school kid dolled up to play Grandpa Sycamore in the senior-class production of You Can’t Take it With You.
In the earlier scenes—by which I mean the scenes throughout the movie that are set earlier in time—DiCaprio captures Hoover’s bulldog dedication and obsessive attention to detail. He’s like a manic force, talking in such a breakneck avalanche of words that he sometimes has to stop himself from falling into an uncontrollable stutter. In this driven young man we can see the Hoover who built the FBI into both an efficient detective agency and an intimidating base for his own personal power. As Hoover grows older, DiCaprio’s performance becomes more self-conscious and actorish; I began to suspect that his creative imagination may not quite extend to showing us what it is like to be 60 or 75.
DiCaprio fares better against the crust of makeup than does Armie Hammer, who plays Hoover’s associate director and personal protégé Clyde Tolson. Even without the age makeup, Tolson’s character never quite comes into focus; it’s never clear what these two men—whatever is going on between them—see in each other.
Were Hoover and Tolson lovers? That’s what everybody wants to know, of course, and the clues are strong—the two lived in different homes, but never married anyone else and were virtually inseparable for 40 years at work, at meals and on vacation; Tolson even inherited Hoover’s estate. As to whether they were anything more than just buddies—well, there were rumors even at the time, but only two people ever knew the answer, and they both died without saying. In trying to guess, Black’s script makes one of its tumbles into the ridiculous, in a high-camp lovers’ spat in a hotel room that ends with Tolson planting a brutal kiss on Hoover, then flouncing out shrieking, “You’ll never have my companionship again, Edgar!” Armie Hammer may have limits as an actor, but cut him a break; nobody could play that scene.
Even more ridiculous (if that’s possible) is a scene of an impulsive Hoover clumsily asking secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) to marry him. She refuses, but goes on to be his personal assistant for 54 years. That last part really happened, but the proposal? Sorry, Clint, Lance; not buying it, not for a second, and it was inconsiderate of you to make Watts and DiCaprio try to sell it.