For those who don’t already know it, I want to say straight off that I am not one of Clint Eastwood’s greatest admirers. Generally, I admire the fact that he makes his films his way without any attempt to change with the taste of the times. My problem is quite simply that I don’t tend to care for the way he makes films, and I find many of them absurdly overrated. In the case of J. Edgar, however, Eastwood has made a film that I almost unhesitatingly admire. If it weren’t for the appalling old age make-up on Armie Hammer (which looks like something out of a bad horror movie) and Eastwood’s insistence on one of his “decorative piano” musical scores, I’d remove the qualifiers. Overall, it’s a brilliantly crafted and superbly acted film. Not surprisingly, I suppose, I find myself praising Eastwood for a film that is hardly universally admired.
But then with J. Edgar, Eastwood is working in the much-maligned and almost equally misunderstood realm of the biopic—a genre that is bound to displease a lot of people by its very nature. The problem starts with the very concept of trying to capture some sense of a person’s life in two hours or so of a movie. The notion that it’s possible to include everything and be 100-percent accurate is ludicrous. That doesn’t even happen in a full textbook biography, and it’s not—or shouldn’t be—the aim of the biopic. What the biopic—the good ones anyway—strives to do is give the filmmaker’s vision of the essence of the subject, and the filmmaker’s reaction to the subject. And that, I think, J. Edgar does, though it might be fairer to say in this case that it’s the combination of the filmmaker and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black.
That said, it needs to be understood that what you’re getting is a subjective portrait—one derived from known fact and speculation based on what is known. In this case, that’s even trickier, since so little about J. Edgar Hoover can be called “known fact.” In this case, a good deal of the speculation comes from the point of view that “This is the only way the story makes sense” within the confines of those known facts. The results, however, are guaranteed to not entirely satisfy either Hoover’s supporters or his detractors. Those wanting a hero and those wanting a monster will find neither in Eastwood’s film. Stripped to its fundamentals, the film is essentially a combination of a very sad love story and the tragic—or maybe pathetic—story of a man so involved in living his own self-created myth that there’s little or nothing of the man himself left. By the end, it’s not even clear how much of the truth of his own life is known to Hoover.
The film—which manages to traverse seven decades with surprising clarity and speed—presents Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a deeply closeted gay man whose only meaningful relationships were with his controlling mother (Judi Dench), his second-in-command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), and—perhaps most importantly—his own public image. That image—along with his mother and her “I’d rather have a dead son than a ‘daffodil’” attitude—is, in fact, central to his closeted nature as presented by Eastwood and Black. Is it factual? No, not in the concrete sense, it isn’t. It’s not a reading with which I’m prepared to take issue, because it’s the only way the man’s story makes sense to me. What needs to be understood is that the portrait is not sensationalistic—and while I wouldn’t go so far as to call it sympathetic, neither would I call it unsympathetic.
The structure of the film is very shrewd in that it’s a combination of what “really” happened, and a detailed series of flashbacks drawn from the aged Hoover dictating his story to a series of FBI agents. These flashbacks are, by their very nature, not entirely reliable. But it’s not until the very end of the film that the difference between reality and Hoover’s memories becomes clear—and it doesn’t become clear through any fault of Hoover’s, but rather from Tolson pulling the rug out from under the supposed facts. Yet this is not done cruelly, and it is, in fact, followed by the film’s most genuinely touching moment—one that contains the only overt phyical expression of love from Hoover in the entire film. In context, it’s heartbreaking and the moment that the film and its “hero” becomes human. Rated R for brief strong language.