J. Edgar

Art & Culture

I had hoped that after the disappointments of Invictus and Hereafter Clint Eastwood might have rediscovered his mojo with a film about one of the most famous and vile Americans of the 20th Century. Sadly, this is another dud.

Having waded through a very long (and unflattering) biography of J Edgar Hoover in preparation for seeing this film, I feel in a better position than usual to hold forth with a degree of authority on the life of the man who was head of the FBI for what seemed like centuries, but was actually more like 40 years.
As far as I can tell, he was a racist, homophobic, power-crazy, paranoid fascist, who loathed communism, radicals, homosexuals, women, black people and anyone who he regarded as a dissident with equal opportunity venom. This outlook on life is given an extra twist by the fact that he had what can best be described as a very close relationship with his associate director Clyde Tolson. He blackmailed virtually every president he served under (eight in all), in order to stay in power and have things his way, and spent an enormous amount of FBI time and resources on American citizens who presented no threat to anyone – such as Jane Fonda. In addition he denied the existence of organised crime, and did everything he could to avoid pursuing the Mafia, with whom he appears to have had an unnaturally and illegally close relationship – perhaps because they had the dirt on him. Oh yes, and he was solidly behind Senator McCarthy's anti-Communist crusade. He was a Bad Man.
So my first question is – why would anyone want to make a film about this guy? Or, if you do decide to make a film about him, it might be best if the story showed him in his true colours. Whereas Clint Eastwood and scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black have chosen to present a portrait of a man who loves his mother too much, is obsessed with index card systems, and gets a bit grumpier as he gets older. This seems to me as profound a misrepresentation as that recently perpetrated in The Iron Lady.
Indeed, the structure of both films is very similar with corresponding problems. Just as we see Thatcher remembering her earlier life from her demented dotage, in J Edgar, Hoover dictates his memoirs to selected agents at the end of his career. This allows the film to tell his life in flashback, with regular visits back to more modern times (late 60s/early 70s), but it also means that the narrative is muddled, muddling and selective. It also begs the question of the context of the more intimate parts of the film. When Hoover proposes and is turned down: when he has a lover's quarrel with Tolson – these cannot be part of what he dictates to an agent, so how do they fit in? It's unreliable narrative stretched beyond breaking point.
And of course there's the dreaded ageing makeup. Younger actors covered in latex – or whatever they use – look like actors in latex, not older versions of their younger selves. And talking of age, what induced Eastwood to cast Judi Dench as Hoover's mother? Dench is 77, yet has to play a woman who – at the beginning of the film – is 44 (when Hoover is 10). More significantly, she is meant to be in her mid 50s when Hoover is first appointed to the Bureau. She looks like an old lady then, and throughout the film. It makes no sense. And while I'm at it, why does Helen Gandy (played by Naomi Watts), Hoover's devoted secretary. age more slowly than her boss? When they meet, they're the same age. But by the time he's old, she looks mildly middle-aged. Weird.
These are minor quibbles. There are more serious problems. As I say, the narrative is confusing. If you haven't read anything about Hoover's life, you will be none the wiser after two hours and more of jumping back and forth over the decades. You will also be uncertain as to how you are supposed to view the central character. From where I'm sitting, Hoover was an unadulterated scumbag, but Eastwood and Black seem to want to have it both ways. On the one hand, we have glimpses of him listening to sex tapes of Martin Luther King as he hears news of JFK's assassination; or letting Bobby Kennedy know that he's got the dirt on him and his brother. On the other hand, we keep getting stuff about how much he adores his mother (who doesn't want him to be a 'daffodil' – i.e. gay), and a rather soppy non-specific love affair with Clyde Tolson. It's like the Thatcher film: the film makers are unwilling to come right out and condemn their main character, and as result end up sentimentalising them, against all the evidence.
And then there's Leo. Di Caprio plays Hoover as a callow but enthusiastic 24 year old in 1919, all the way through to his demise as an overweight latex-covered 77 year old, and he is – by and large – pretty good. I'm not saying that Hoover deserves such a favourable portrayal, or even that Leo is the best man to play him, but credit where credit is due. He may even win an Oscar, which, assuming that Meryl wins for playing Maggie, would have a certain ghastly irony. I was watching some clips from Oliver Stone's Nixon, in preparation for seeing J Edgar, and thought that Bob Hoskins was really rather good as Hoover, and that either he – or even Anthony Hopkins who plays Nixon – would have made a better Hoover. But DiCaprio is going to get more bums on seats.
Perhaps the film's worst crime, though, is that it's dull. This is partly due to the unwise effort to pack too much information into the film, but is almost equally as a result of a clunky and exposition-heavy script, and some pedestrian and unimaginative direction. Eastwood is rightly praised for being an efficient and no-nonsense director who gets on with it. When it works (as it did most recently in Gran Torino), it's admirable. When it doesn't – as it has failed to do for the last 3 films – it's painfully hard work. At the age of 81, however fit and healthy he is, Eastwood can't have that many films left in him. I'd love it if he was  more selective from here on in.


Phil Raby

Front Row Films

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