Open hate, repressed love
At the end of Clint Eastwood’s biopic about J. Edgar Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio), an aged Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) labors into a dark bedroom full of curios and then slumps down and weeps over the swollen white albatross of a body. It’s his longtime companion, the paranoid, dictatorial founder and ruling monarch of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, who up to now has been in every frame, and dominates the screen even as a carcass. Dustin Lance Black, the gay writer who won an Oscar for his screenplay for Gus Van Sant’s Milk, tells the story his way. This movie has all the stuff about Hoover’s struggle to make the FBI strong and independent (to put it mildly). But the overriding theme is a sad, repressed love story — a love whose name Tolson dares speak, but J. Edgar can only whisper. When J. Edgar speaks of marrying a woman and Clyde freaks out, it’s their only big emotional scene, but it’s intense, and it may be enough.
The repressed love is the message, but Black doesn’t overstate it, and Eastwood can be counted on not to. Still, it’s the interest of a movie that’s otherwise weighed down by the worst machinery of biopics. The tale is encased in the laborious device of an autobiography undertaken by Hoover in his later years–his self-aggrandizing version of his career achievements, which Clyde reveals at the end to be full of lies and distortions. As a result DiCaprio spends a lot of the picture, from first to last, buried in heavy makeup (which toward the end Hammer also must don) dictating his story as the scenes shift back and forth in time. Naomi Watts gamely labors through the thankless role of Hoover’s lifelong personal secretary, Helen Gundy, who’s credited with destroying the Director’s personal files at his death before Nixon’s men can come in and grab them. “That old cocksucker!” Nixon (Christopher Shyer, not the least Nixon-like) exclaims when he learns Hoover’s gone. This is a story of repression. Most of the time J. Edgar and Clyde can allow themselves nothing more than an affectionate touch of the hand. Back and forth the story goes. And the suspicion is that beyond the repressed, ritualistic love affair, the real excitement was the Bureau’s collective exploits, in which J. Edgar was often not physically involved.
With Clyde, Edgar explores his gay side, getting beautiful slick-looking suits like Clyde’s at Julius Garfinckel’s posh DC department store. They must have had a good time back then, dining out all the time, looking natty. The two men are both stylish and fresh-faced. Armie Hammer is tall and handsome. His eyes and teeth gleam. He’s the gay man’s perfect trophy husband. As the young Hoover, DiCaprio is in good point, sleek-faced and shiny-haired. They share a bit of gay camp, mocking other people’s bad taste and frumpy clothes.
Though the film doesn’t make as much of this as it could, this is a man who lives by manipulating the secrets of others who himself harbors a terrible secret, his homosexuality. And he has so many worries. The FBI begins as an outlier body, denied the right to search without warrant, to wiretap, even to carry arms. Hoover begins with the Twenties war on communists, involved in the Palmer Raids aimed at deporting them, beating down the likes of Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). But when the red-baiting McCarthy arrives, he doesn’t like him. He is brutal and arbitrary in hiring and firing. He doesn’t like or trust anybody but Clyde and Miss Gundy. He hates every president, all eight of them from Hoover to Nixon, coveting their power. He keeps a file on Eleanor Roosevelt. He and Clyde cluck with glee when they find she may have a lesbian lover. He blackmails the Kennedys.
A quiet but continuous theme is Hoover’s close relationship with his mother, with whom he lived till her death; Clyde maintained a separate residence. As discreetly played by Judy Dench, Annie Hoover is a little mysterious. She’d rather her son be dead than a “daffodil,” but the relationship doesn’t seem particularly neurotic, just subservient.
A key moment for the country and the FBI is the Lindbergh kidnapping. Often Hoover is humiliated and abused on his way to absolute power, and he is pushed away by the New Jersey police looking for the Lindberghs’ baby boy. But though he can’t save the child, his investigatory methods — his championing of the use of forensic science and fingerprinting files is there from the start — lead to the capture and conviction of the kidnapper, Bruno Richard Hauptmann (Damon Herriman), which H.L. Mencken called “the biggest story since the Resurrection.” Despite this victory, and the extra powers that came with it, Hoover is harangued before a Congressional committee as unqualified for his job. How much he was hated and resented, and all the wrongdoing he was accused of, are aspects of the life that are underplayed because the movie lets the man tell most of his own story in voiceover. This both humanizes and ironizes him, but doesn’t it dull down the tale?
Black gives us a narrative maze, diving back and forth between different layers of makeup and weaving a delirium of chronologies in the hope of numbing our pesky suspicion that the story of the bureaucracy is more exciting than the story of the man. We certainly aren’t going to like him: DiCaprio deserves credit for taking on someone even more unappealing than the crazy but glamorous Howard Hughes. This is penance. And it’s hard work. The accents aren’t any more convincing than the makeup (but he’s still strong and haunting). Leo sounds like Nixon. Would he play McCarthy? He’s got the bull neck now. But there’s hope for more fun next. Word is, he’ll soon be seen as Jay Gatsby, and after that probably Frank Sinatra. So thankfully, party time is coming. And in those roles, he’ll be a guy who knows how to dance.
J. Edgar is released in cinemas 20th January.
DIRECTOR: CLINT EASTWOOD
WRITER: DAVID LANCE BLACK
STARS: LEONARDO DICAPRIO, ARMIE HAMMER, NAOMI WATTS, JUDI DENCH
RUNTIME: 137 MIN