Classified Information, by Tyler Smith
On the list of enigmatic political figures, J. Edgar Hoover ranks pretty high. Everything about him seems to contradict everything else. He vehemently condemned homosexuality, yet was likely a homosexual himself. He believed in America, but was perfectly willing to subvert the law in order to do his job. There are just as many rumors that swirl around about Hoover’s personal life as about his professional methods. How appropriate, then, that to make a film about him seems like both an obvious choice, yet an almost impossible endeavor.
Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar does what it can to explore the life and motivations of this strange and mysterious man, but it falls far too short to be satisfying. While I think Eastwood can be a good director, I think that he is not the man to make this film. This material requires a filmmaker that is willing to really probe deeper into Hoover or, at least, hypothesize about what drove him. If there was ever a word that I definitely wouldn’t use to describe Clint Eastwood, it’s “probing.” There is no question that he has directed some pretty great films, but Eastwood is notoriously instinctive. When I hear stories about how content he is with only one or two takes, as well as his disinterest in editing the screenplays he is bringing to life, my first instinct is admiration. Such methods can work very well for a film like Million Dollar Baby or Unforgiven, in which a certain rawness can be an asset.
In attempting to depict Hoover, Eastwood comes up against a force that is almost impenetrable; a man whose surface is very different than his core. To try to figure this man out, we need a director that is willing to roll up his sleeves and start digging. Somebody that isn’t content to skip across the surface and simply say, “Okay, I think we’ve got it.”
Another option is to embrace the mystery and explore the intangible quality of Hoover. There are several approaches that a director could take. But to approach the material in a straightforward manner is to do a disservice to Hoover. And Clint Eastwood is nothing if not a straightforward director.
There are several things to like about the film, like the cinematography and art direction. The look of the film is beautiful. So often, the characters are plunged into an inky blackness. These are people that inhabit a shadowy world, where there are enemies on all sides; some criminal, some of them political. That everybody looks the same- gray suits, gray ties, gray hats- only adds to the paranoia. In this respect, J. Edgar is top notch. Like Eastwood’s Changeling, this film creates a sense of place and time that is not only consistent, but inescapable.
The acting is solid, if not always convincing. As Hoover, DiCaprio does everything he can to capture the man’s emotions. Unfortunately, the script isn’t doing him any favors. The character never quite comes together. Scene to scene, it’s a strong performance, but over the course of the film’s 137 minutes, any sense of consistency falls apart. As we see the emotional effort that DiCaprio is putting in, we wish that the film took its cues from his performance; constrained, but willing to plumb the depths.
There is one flaw in DiCaprio’s performance, and it is worth noting. Much has been made about the old age makeup used in the film. The film starts with the end of World War I and ends right before Watergate, so there’s a lot of ground to cover. When we first see DiCaprio under all that makeup, our first instinct is to be incredulous. That is not the fault of Eastwood, DiCaprio, or the makeup artists. We just know that Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t actually look like that, so we search for any flaws we can find in the makeup. There really aren’t any, though.
And yet I had a hard time buying Hoover as an old man. The reason why, I think, is that DiCaprio chooses not to change his voice as the character grows older. His voice sounds exactly the same as a 25-year-old as it does when he dies at the age of 77. That is not how aging works. My voice sounds different than it did only ten years ago, and I have to assume that it will continue to change over the course of the next 40. Perhaps DiCaprio was worried that to attempt to husk his voice up a little- especially while adopting an Atlantic accent- is to try for too much. Maybe he thought it would sound silly. Perhaps he was right, but one thing is for sure. For a 77-year-old man to have the voice of an already youthful sounding 36-year-old is to shatter the reality of the film. While DiCaprio pulls off the emotion of the elderly Hoover, stewing in his own paranoia, we still feel like he’s wearing his father’s suit. Or, more specifically, his grandfather’s.
The other major performances are very good. Naomi Watts takes a character that seemingly has very little to do and imbues her with a wisdom that we don’t often see in such a character. As Hoover’s lifelong secretary, Watts creates a character whose admiration and loyalty is tempered by an understanding of who this man can truly be. The moments shared between DiCaprio and Watts indicates a relationship that goes much deeper than simply an employer and his employee.
Deeper still is Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson, played by Armie Hammer. Hammer- who I still think of as two people thanks to his great performance(s) in The Social Network– creates a character that seems flamboyant and breezy, but, with a slight smirk and a cock of the head, indicates a keen comprehension of the world around him.
The film’s best moments are between Hoover and Tolson, whose relationship was officially purely professional, but was obviously romantic. While both men realize that they can’t openly live out their relationship the way they’d like, Tolson makes no pretense behind closed doors. He is in love. Sadly, Hoover’s public face and private demons keeps him conflicted about the relationship. We see the emotional wringer that he puts Tolson through as he attempts to reconcile his desire with his ambition. It is in these moments that both characters- and actors- are able to finally bare their souls and, in anger and in tears, draw closer to each other than they ever expected they could.
Watching these scenes, I found myself wishing that more of the film had been this bold. I wished that Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black had been more willing to just go for it and tell a story that is both emotionally and artistically messy. Perhaps it would have been sordid, perhaps it would have been melodramatic. But at least then we could feel like we were engaging with the man that Hoover might well have been, and not perpetually at arm’s length. I’m reminded of Oliver Stone’s Nixon, which is at times bloated and over-the-top and silly. But Stone never lets us forget that, underneath our preconceptions about this hated public figure was a man like any other, with emotions, desires, needs, and regrets. It was in Stone’s willingness to try anything that he was able to finally arrive at the heart of a man that many people thought had no heart at all.
If Eastwood wasn’t willing or able to do that, perhaps he could have gone the other way and approached Hoover as a mystery. A vague and unknowable man whose reputation and image made it impossible for anybody to ever really reach him. There is an interesting exchange later in the film in which Tolson confronts Hoover about the self aggrandizing lies he has been telling; lies that we just saw portrayed on screen as truth. In that moment, we suddenly see Hoover as a very different man. He is not only willing to subvert the truth in defense of his country, but in defense of himself, as well. It is a jarring, invigorating moment, akin to the twist in The Usual Suspects, in which we learn that the story we’ve been told is the work of a world class liar and it’s possible that literally none of it is true. If the film had been more willing to explore the way in which Hoover manipulated his own image- to the point where even we the audience aren’t sure what to believe at any given moment- J. Edgar might have been a very different kind of biopic. One that in its execution was able to capture the essence of the man himself.
Sadly, that was not to be. Clint Eastwood isn’t interested in putting us inside the mind of J. Edgar Hoover, a brilliant man whose methods revolutionized modern criminal investigation and enabled him to pull the strings of power from behind his elevated desk. Nor is he interested in exploring the heart of J. Edgar Hoover, a lonely man desperate for love and approval, but terrified to ask for it in the way he most desired. Instead, he is content to skim the surface, hinting at greater things, then falling back into much more comfortable territory.
There is a truly great film to be made about the enigmatic J. Edgar Hoover. This is not that film.