Clint Eastwood's inspired take on a giant of the twentieth century in J. Edgar

Nov 17, 2011 at 4:00 am
Leonardo DiCaprio shines in J. Edgar.
Leonardo DiCaprio shines in J. Edgar. Keith Bernstein

A resounding "yes" to the question trembling on every lip: There is life after Hereafter! Clint Eastwood goes deep into Oliver Stone territory and emerges victorious with J. Edgar. Although hardly flawless, Eastwood's biopic is his richest, most ambitious movie since the Letters from Iwo Jima-Flags of Our Fathers duo, if not Unforgiven.

Does anyone under the age of 50 even remember the man who more or less created the FBI and successfully ran the agency for nearly half a century? Patriot, scoundrel, genius of self-promotion, gang-buster, red-baiter, blackmailer, proponent of the fingerprint, apostle of the wiretap, keeper of the crypt and momma's boy monster of sexual repression, J. Edgar Hoover (1895–1972) was one of the great American personalities of the twentieth century. ("He's sick, cruel, dogmatic, stupid, racist.... Everything I like in a character," Sam Fuller once said.) Hoover is also a figure who, for the 81-year-old Eastwood, must have been a childhood hero and perhaps later a Dirty Harry ego-ideal as the guy who would break any law to defend The Law.

Hoover has already been splendidly embodied by Broderick Crawford in Larry Cohen's 1977 pulp masterpiece, The Private Files of J. Edgar Hoover. But with prosthetics simulating Hoover's bulldog look, the better to enact the FBI man's bulldog tenacity, Leonardo DiCaprio turns out to have been a quite canny casting move. With his own celebrity presence, DiCaprio successfully promotes the movie's idea of Hoover as a star (rather than the squat balding troll familiar to anyone who grew up in the '60s), even as he makes convincing the sexual ambiguity crucial to the Hoover conceived by Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.

Black, who won an Oscar for Milk, has furnished Eastwood with a complex, richly associative script that puts the first twenty years of Hoover's career (the 1920s and '30s) in the context of his last decade (the 1960s), with flashbacks motivated by the memoir he dictates to a succession of young agents. Crammed with material, even if the mid section is a bit slack, J. Edgar is a dense historical tapestry. Everyone from Emma Goldman and Shirley Temple to Norman Schwarzkopf Sr. and H.R. Haldeman gets a cameo, but it's all in the service of historical perspective. The bombs that triggered the 1919 Palmer Raids foreshadow the events of, and fallout from, 9/11 ("the crimes we're investigating are not crimes but ideas," someone complains) even as the Hoover of 1961 looks back on the post-World War I Red Scare as a harbinger of the civil-rights movement and its supposedly communist-directed leader, Martin Luther King Jr. It's "just like today," Hoover more than once notes.

Like most Eastwood productions, J. Edgar is frugal and under lit; like his better films, it has an undercurrent of nuttiness. The movie's closing thought: "Love is the greatest force on Earth." So, yes, J. Edgar provides an almost credible theory of the great man's sexuality. The movie might have done more with his fascinated horror of female criminality, from Ma Barker to Angela Davis; still, when propositioned at age 35 by an eager movie starlet and then asked to dance by Ginger Rogers' mother, Hoover runs home in terror to his battle-ax mom (Judi Dench). "I'd rather have a dead son than a live daffodil" she snarls and teaches him a rudimentary fox trot. Eastwood sees Hoover's relation to the women in his life as key — he early forms a crucial bond with his sternly asexual personal secretary Helen Gandy (self-effacingly played by Naomi Watts) — but his most important relationship is with designated best friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Discreetly campy for most of the movie, Hammer throws a magnificent tantrum upon learning that his soulmate is contemplating marriage with Hollywood sarongster Dorothy Lamour.

Indeed, Hollywood is never far away. Just as Hoover is several times accused of fabricating media stories and turning himself into a fictional hero, J. Edgar is a self-aware production, filled with its own textual signposts. There are flashes of Jimmy Cagney as a gangster in Public Enemy and a cop in "G" Men. Other references are simply playful: Edgar and Clyde bond while shopping for clothes at a men's store named Julius Garfinkle (given name of blacklisted star John Garfield) and the word "nelly" leaps out of a courtroom display at a kidnapping trial. J. Edgar not only references Citizen Kane but, in Edgar's mother-loving antics, Psycho. There's even a nod to The Matrix when Hoover begins dictating his memoirs to one Agent Smith (not, unfortunately, played by Hugo Weaving).

Most generously, J. Edgar also acknowledges Cohen's Private Files, which posited Hoover as the black widow spider of American politics who orchestrated everything from the assassination of Robert Kennedy to the fall of Richard Nixon. In effect, Eastwood has given Cohen's movie a prequel. Watching Nixon's inauguration, Edgar is seized with anticipatory dread: "We must never forget our history. We must never lower our guard." He is of course using the royal we. Upon learning of Hoover's death, the first thing Nixon does is tell his flunky "I want those fucking files."