J. Edgar (2011): Eastwood’s Biopic of Hoover, Starring DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench

Part portrait of a complex, iconic man, part chronicle of the FBI as a seminal institution, part survey of half a century of American history and politics, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is an ambitious but not entirely satisfying film—emotionally, dramatically, or intellectually.

Sharply uneven, “J. Edgar” contains many provocative and powerful moments, but it’s also a film that perhaps tries to accomplish too much within its time frame of two hours and 17 minutes.

Serving as opening night of the 2011 AFI Film Fest, “J. Edgar” will be released theatrically on November 9. Warner faces a challenge in putting over a prestige, A-caliber picture (targeted at receiving the attention of Oscar voters), which is likely to divide critics, including hardcore fans of Eastwood’s work.

Tackling his most demanding role to date, Leonardo DiCaprio, who appears in almost every scene, gives a performance which is easier to respect and to admire than to really like or to connect to emotionally. (This is not entirely his fault, as I’ll later explain).

Though intelligent, the movie may be too restrained and too balanced for its own good, a result of Eastwood’s measured strategy, his carefulness in covering the rich and dense turf that defined Hoover’s career and life, his refusal to turn the text into something juicier and more scandalous, even when it calls for.

Whether intentionally or not, “J. Edgar” is too ambiguous when it comes to its protagonist’s private life and sexual identity. This is strange, considering that it was scripted by Dustin Lance Black, an openly gay writer, who won the Original Screenplay Oscar for “Milk.” (I have not read the script and thus have no idea whether there was more in it about Hoover’s sexuality and other controversial aspects of his life.)

A large part of the tale is narrated by the aged Hoover (DiCaprio in heavy, constricting make-up), looking back on his work and life, while dictating his memoirs to a series of agents, all young and extremely handsome.  The subjective voice-over serves two functions. First, it links among the various episodes of Hoover’s dense life, and some will find the picture too episodic, and too choppy. Second, it offers commentary on his active participation in crucial events of American history, such as the trial of Bolshevik Emma Goldman, or the kidnapping and murder of Lindberg’s child, the hunting of major gangsters.

An indicator of an effective biopic—and “J. Edgar” is a biopic—is that at the end of the film, you wish to know more about its character. This is certainly the case of Eastwood’s picture, which, for a change, calls for a longer film and deeper evaluation of the man and his myth. (As a subject, Hoover’s life seems more suitable for a TV’s miniseries).

Early on in the story, Hoover says, “I don’t have to tell you that what determines a man’s legacy is often what isn’t seen.” To a large extent his motto could be applied to Eastwood’s picture.  Eastwood and Black go out of their way not to depict Hoover as a “hero” or as a “villain.” With the exception of Hoover’s attitude toward Communism, a life-long obsession bordering on paranoia that’s depicted in black-and-white, all the other issues in Hoover’s life are colored in different shades of gray.

 Approaching the material as a character study, Black is aware of the daunting task of demystifying Hoover, an iconic figure in American history that’s still shrouded in mystery in both his political and personal life.  In theory, the model for “J. Edgar” is Orson Welles’s masterpiece, “Citizen Kane,” and both Black’s scenario and Eastwood’s movie (especially in the beginning) make explicit references and allusions (both thematic and visual) to that 1941 landmark picture.

Problem is, unlike Charles Foster Kane, the central character here doesn’t change much.   As time goes by–the frame is over 50 years–Hoover just becomes more racist, more paranoid about Communism, more dependent on his mother, more egomaniac, more ruthless in his methods, more suspicious toward U.S. presidents—and just as vague (or hot-and-cold) in his relationship with Tolson as he was at the beginning of the tale.

 Among the key points which give the narrative a center are the Lindbergh kidnapping, the formation of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, the bringing down of the country’s most iconic gangster. The story unfolds as a dissection of relationships, an anatomy of the intimate interactions between Hoover and the three individuals who were the closest to him—Clyde Tolson, his second in command and lifelong friend (gay partner?) Helen Gandy, and his mother.

Of the three chief relationships, the only one that is conveyed vividly and effectively is between Hoover and his monstrous mother; the most superficial is between Hoover and Gandy, and the most intriguing but also frustrating is between Hoover and his partner (both domestic and professional) Clyde Tolson.

In the periphery, we get to see numerous (to many, in fact) secondary players, all high-profile celebs, such as political figures (Robert Kennedy, Richard Nixon), movie stars (James Cagney, Ginger Rogers and her notorious mother Lela Rogers), various agents who worked for the FBI.

 “It’s time this generation finds out my side of the story,” Hoover says in the first scene, and the ensuing tale tries to do that—to varying degrees of success.

 The movie begins with a quintessential Hoover statement, “Communism is not just a plot; it’s a disease that plugs our nation.” Chronologically, the first dramatic (and traumatic) event occurs in 1919, with the explosion of eight bombs which killed and injured some innocent people. “That very night my eyes opened,” Hoover says.

In the next sequence, Hoover encounters in the corridors a young attractive secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts). Rushing home for dinner to tell him mother (Judi Dench) of his potential date, the domineering matriarch, asks him to quit smoking and to make sure that he doesn’t become like his father (a pathetic figure). “Romance Her! she says in a tone that’s more commanding than encouraging, suggesting that he wears a blue suit and tie. Needless to say, the son obeys.

 Very much “a mama’s boy,” Hoover, who still lives with his mother, is utterly dependent on her ideas and opinions. In a brief flashback, mom looks straight into his eyes and tells him, “You’re destined for greatness.”

Naomi Watts

On their first date, the immature Hoover takes Helen to the library and proudly shows off his new, systematic method of cataloguing. Smitten, though clearly lacking any romantic or sexual experience, he then kneels down and proposes, only to be told by Helen that “My work comes first.”  Unfortunately, this is the only meaty scene that the gifted actress Naomi Watts gets to play. For the rest of the saga, though we are led to believe that she ran the office, Helen functions as his loyal secretary, opening and closing doors, introducing visitors, and so on.

The earlier chapters document how Hoover became the catalyst for modern forensics, how he created inventive (and more often than not ruthless) methods of investigation, how he recruited his officers, one by one, often dismissing an agent just because he didn’t like his facial hair or seemingly arrogant demeanor.

Black presents Hoover from different angles, both as a young man and as an old man. His script spans Hoover’s entire professional life, from the “Bolshevik invasions in 1919, when Communism was almost like a terrorist movement in Hoover’s eyes, and he battled it and other perceived enemies throughout his career.

Stretching himself considerably by playing one of the most challenging parts in his career, emotionally, mentally, and physically, DiCaprio shows above all dedication and commitment to the part. But something is missing from his performance—a more natural and spontaneous emotional affinity, the kind of which Sean Penn showed in “Milk.”

In many ways, Hoover was the very opposite of Milk. Like Milk, he was a charismatic, ambitious man who accumulated tremendous political power, but, unlike Milk, he was intensely closeted in his personal life, a man unable to come to terms with his sexual desire, and failing to express his inner feelings.

In DiCaprio’s interpretation, Hoover comes across as a bundle of contradictions, a man both feared and revered, a figure whose public and private lives spark rumors and innuendos, yet, due to his secrecy, many relevant questions remain speculative.

Eastwood doesn’t challenge Hoover’s stature as a complex, compelling, and fearsome figure, who had captivated American politics and culture and had served under eight different presidents. As director, he is obviously attracted to the issue of how absolute power can corrupt and damage even the most dedicated patriots. He interprets such decadence as a result of Hoover’s own making, his own demons, as well as of more objective socio-political circumstances.

Eastwood perceives Hoover as a high profile, media-seeking official–he’s seen with movie actors and famous writers at social gatherings and night clubs, there are always journalists and camera men around him. Hoover is a man who starts out with the best intention of creating the most efficient FBI the U.S. could have, but then goes on to become paranoid and even diabolical.

A national hero, who established a new sense of order, protection and safety, and at the same time, he was a villain who represented terror and autocracy to many Americans, particularly presidents Kennedy (who is not seen in the movie) and Nixon (who is seen and is portrayed as a caricature).

Throughout, Black presents life from Hoover’s point of view, from his own psyche, letting him tell the story as he remembers it. There is one powerful scene toward the end, when Tolson, upset and angry that he had never gotten public recognition for his many contributions, tells Hoover off and we see a sequence of crucial events from Tolson’s POV, which is supposed to represent the “truth.”

 In the end, Hoover remains a mysterious, ambiguous man who deserves a fuller and better cinematic treatment than the one he gets in Eastwood’s picture, which is more intriguing than compelling, too balanced to leave strong impact.