Saturday, November 19, 2011
Eastwood loses his way when he turns to Hoover's personal life, which in the early scenes feels like a Tennesse Williams play complete with crazy father, niece around for no apparent reason, and a mother rhapsodizing about the past. It's nurture not nature in the film's conception; Hoover makes an awkward lunge at his future secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts, overqualified) but it's hard to imagine another woman in his life after we've met his mother. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) shows up as Hoover begins to recruit agents for his new Bureau. There's nothing lurid or sensational in the way J. Edgar puts Hoover and Tolson in a chaste marriage; Tolson succeeds in loosening Hoover up a little in private and only bucks when Hoover makes noise about marrying a woman. The two's big fight scene is one of the worst in the film,with Hammer playing a jealous Tolson more like a petulant Winklevoss brother than a career law enforcement agent. It's to Dustin Lance Black's credit that Hoover and Tolson aren't pioneers, they don't understand their feelings in the same way Harvey Milk did. That said, pinning Hoover's anti-Communist fanaticism on his own repression feels like a judgment and doesn't add much to our understanding of the man. Hoover is a smaller man in the 1960's scenes, obsessed with the sex lives of JFK and King and unwilling to accept the fact that domestic Communism was no longer a serious threat. The makeup used to age DiCaprio and Hammer is impressive in its own right I suppose, but we're always aware of the artifice and the extra layers take some power away from a late tender moment between Hoover and Tolson. J. Edgar finally suffers from the collision between Eastwood, Black, and the subject matter. Hoover's sexuality receives a sympathetic airing but the mores of the day precluded emotional honesty, while Eastwood has no feel for the 1960's scenes of Hoover's late career. We're always in Hoover's controlled world, and there's no sense of the social upheaval he was so disturbed by. All of this subtraction doesn't leave much to work with, and maybe that's why the movie has so little emotional weight. J. Edgar needed filmmakers who were willing to be more offhand, to put Hoover in context amid the times he lived in. The man at the movie's center might be uncrackable, but a director willing to open up the movie's world might have succeeded in giving us the J. Edgar we deserve.