Clint Eastwood’s biopic “J. Edgar” follows the life of the man who, as the first head of the FBI, had perhaps as much influence on the course of modern American history as any of the eight presidents under whom he served. As Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio (who will almost certainly get an Oscar nomination for his work here) portrays a man who came across in public as confident and self -assured to a literal fault but whose private demons tortured him in sundry ways. From one angle, in fact, the film is a love story, depicting the pleasures and the problems that love brings.
Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, an Oscar winner for 2008’s “Milk,” focus on the relationships between Hoover and two women and one man, though we rarely see any of the latter on screen together, suggesting something of the compartmentalization of Hoover’s life. The first in time and importance is his mother, deftly played by Judi Dench, who resists making her into another “Psycho” mom. (Black suggests that her powerful influence on her son may have been the basis for the persistent rumors that he was a cross-dresser.) DiCaprio and Dench’s scenes together are among the film’s most complex and moving, two fine actors at the top of their games.
The other woman is Hoover’s longtime secretary, Helen Gandy (nicely underplayed by Naomi Watts), who turns down the young man’s awkward proposal after three dates. She displays a different kind of love and loyalty, however, becoming the sometimes reluctant keeper of the secret files that Hoover was known to have kept on everyone from Eleanor Roosevelt to JFK to Martin Luther King. Though not sharing his zeal for pursuing anyone — no matter how powerful or how innocent — whom Hoover perceived as a threat, Helen helps him maintain his power for nearly 48 years by keeping his leverage over his superiors. Her greatest act of loyalty, though, is her ultimate destruction of those files, providing a huge problem for historians and for an audience that might desire more clarity.
The ambiguity is even more critical in Eastwood and Black’s assessment of the relationship of Hoover with his longtime assistant and companion, Clyde Tolson. As rendered by Armie Hammer, Tolson is clearly gay himself and his desire for Hoover manifest. Whether Hoover reciprocated is left largely implicit, as one fight scene — the most “violent” in the movie — demonstrates. In any case, Tolson remains faithful to Hoover, even though he suffers through his superior’s dalliances with the likes of Dorothy Lamour.
Most of the film’s problems derive from the decision to tell the long and impressive story of Hoover’s public career through flashback. Those unfamiliar with significant moments in American history from the Big Red Scare of 1919, the gangster era of the 20s and 30s, the Lindbergh baby’s kidnapping, to the Vietnam/ Nixon era may find themselves lost as the movie skews back and forth in time. (The device of having Hoover relate his own story to a series of young agents is also a bit awkward.) I’d also quarrel with the inconsistency of the makeup, which is sometimes effective and other times just plain ghastly. And the supporting cast is too often embarrassing in attempting to capture people as disparate as Nixon and Bobby Kennedy.
At well over two hours long, “J. Edgar” will daunt even the most devoted of Eastwood’s considerable fan base, among whom I number myself. It badly needs cutting, by perhaps as much as half an hour: without it, the movie borders on boring far too often, especially given the controversy and color of its subject and his times. It’s rated “R” for some brief strong language, but I think the chief danger for teenagers is that they will get restless after about fifteen minutes and miss what could be a valuable history lesson about the uses and, crucially, the abuses of arrogant, unchecked power in a democracy.