Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Dustin Lance Black (screenplay)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench and Naomi Watts
Two men are fighting over a woman. One declares that he may in fact be ready for a wife, while the other, in a fuming rage, declares that he cannot marry that woman. He smashes some glasses and throws the first punch. Not to be outdone, the other man fights back with all his strength, but to no avail. The other man has him pinned to the ground. And then they kiss.
That is the climax of J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial endeavor and the sliest genre subversion since his masterful acting/directing one-two punch in 2008’s Gran Torino. He is of course filming the illusive FBI titan J. Edgar Hoover, who here is embodied by Leonardo DiCaprio in his finest screen performance.
Moments of J. Edgar harken back to Public Enemies, Michael Mann’s 2009 folk-lore retelling of John Dillinger. Movie theaters are scanned as the screen prompts them to inspect for criminals, and the streets are filled with old black Fords and men in fedoras. Dillinger himself does not make a cameo in Hoover’s film like the mysterious FBI agent did in Public Enemies. In fact, hardly any of the major historical figures that J. Edgar had his vice grip on during his more than 40 year tenure in the FBI show up. Robert Kennedy and Richard Nixon make short appearances, though they are merely caricatures.
Eastwood, along with the gifted screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, are after Hoover and his inside circle. This contains only three people: his mother (Judi Dench), his secretary (Naomi Watts) and his second in command/life-long companion (Armie Hammer). During the film’s 137 minutes, Hoover is seen from many angles, from his notorious paranoia of both Communism and losing power, to his repressed homosexuality. Lance Black intricately links them in his screenplay, hinting that Hoover’s life-long fear of his personal life led him to pry into others’ secrets.
The word ‘gay’ isn’t uttered once in J. Edgar. In keeping with the times, a gay boy from his childhood is instead called “Daffodil” by Hoover’s mother. You get the sense that her domineering attitude and her expressions of either approval or disappointment guided much of this FBI Director’s decision-making. Clyde Tolson (Hammer), on the other hand, is his singular source of joy in this film. They exchange knowing looks of attraction, gradually becoming closer and closer until that previously mentioned throw down drives an irreparable wedge between them.
As many career-driven people of the movies and the real world, Hoover continues to fill that empty void with work. It is after the falling out between him and Tolson that Eastwood starts his gradual departure from biopic norms. By the end, in a touching scene between the elderly sort-of lovers, he has debunked the fictionalization of “True Story” movies altogether.
Throughout the film, the story rotates between Hoover’s rise to power and Hoover’s dictation of that rise to power to several different typists. J. Edgar makes the extremely important distinction that those are two entirely different things. Hoover glorifies everything, often placing himself in situations and correcting mistakes he made through his recitation, similar to what the old woman does at the end of Atonement.
J. Edgar Hoover was a man of many mysteries, which Eastwood acknowledges in the way his camera blankets everything in shadow and drains this world of bright color. Even in the well-lit corridors and backrooms of power in the agency, characters remain almost always half-shadowed.
In a key scene, Hoover’s secretary Helen calls him with news of the Kennedy assassination as he sits, bathed almost entirely in darkness, and obsessively listens to a tape of a man and woman making love. Usually, though, his secretary communicates with him with knowing looks, and Watts and DiCaprio are experts at conveying this relationship from its awkward beginning to its pensive, sad end.
The core relationship of this movie, though, is that of Tolson and Hoover. Even as DiCaprio occupies nearly every scene of the movie, his closest confidant can be found lurking in the background of many shots once he surfaces. The relationship feels very real, to the point that other conversations between Hoover and various experts does not.
DiCaprio gets everything right about Hoover without losing sight of himself as an actor. From his constantly glaring eyes to the way he lets his insecurities eat him alive when he’s around his mother, this is an incredible performance. Some criticize the use of prosthetic make-up for a large portion of the film. Hammer’s looks a little caked on, but the work on DiCaprio recalls a more evolved version of the monster that Orson Welles becomes in Citizen Kane. Watts’ make-up is by far the best, though, and the way all the actors shifted their voices to age with these characters helps complete that transformation.
Details like that are important in making J. Edgar feel authentic. The period touches all feel convincing and the visual style remains consistently bleak and shadowed even as the times shift away from Dillenger and the Depression. Eastwood and Lance Black collaborate well, with this veteran filmmaker giving a calm, pensive gaze to this budding screenwriting talent’s keen observations. Together with DiCaprio, they create a complete portrait of an important man. Deeply flawed and deeply troubled, but important.