Now here’s a counterintuitive marketing strategy: Put heartthrob Leonardo DiCaprio on your poster, shot in unflattering white light, looking old, jowly and snarling. Presumably the promoters of “J. Edgar,” director Clint Eastwood’s biopic of long-time FBI director J. Edgar Hoover, know what they’re doing, but this DiCaprio looks less like the guy legions of office ladies want to date and more like their short-tempered, stubborn manager.
Poor Leo. He’s spent the better part of a decade now indulging his De Niro complex — from “The Aviator” through “The Departed,” “Blood Diamond” and “Shutter Island” — and he’s barely smiled on-screen the entire time. His post-”Titanic” quest to be taken seriously as an actor seems to involve looking serious all the time: Just look at those worry lines on his brow. “J. Edgar” is more of the same: old-man makeup, a paunch and a thoroughly dislikable character.
“J. Edgar” follows Hoover’s 48-year career at the helm of the FBI (and the body that preceded it), flying from one incident to the next, often with little context provided for younger viewers or those less schooled in U.S. history.
The film begins with a young Hoover in the 1920s tracking leftist radicals — such as anarchist firebrand Emma Goldman — before moving into the FBI’s exploits in the ’30s to fight criminals like John Dillinger and Baby Face Nelson (a period better covered by Michael Mann’s “Public Enemies”). Hoover’s real passion, though, was going after real or imagined communists, and this stretched on from the ’50s — when he aided Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts — through his notorious attempts to dig up sexual dirt on civil-rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr. in the ’60s.
The history, however, seems less important to screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (who also penned Gus Van Sant’s “Milk”) than showing that rightwing politicos can be as gay as the left. Black depicts Hoover’s discomfort with women, his dependent relationship with his overbearing mother and, most importantly, his rumored, firmly in-the-closet affair with his right-hand-man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
While this remains a controversial allegation, it’s never been dismissed; it’s true enough that Tolson and Hoover were constant companions, even vacationing together, that neither man married, and that Tolson is buried next to Hoover. The public record certainly shows Tolson at Hoover’s side at almost every social appearance the director made. Whether Hoover was a cross-dresser — as the film suggests — is far more speculative, but it does give DiCaprio the chance to show his range in a dress.
The film gives a lot of play to the idea that it was Hoover’s own repressed sexuality and secrecy that made him so obsessed with investigating the dirty laundry of others, but the fact that Hoover learned nothing in terms of tolerance from his own situation makes him rather despicable. Audience sympathy is lost fairly early on, and a late-life redemption that the filmmakers invent for him comes across as so phony that I actually laughed out loud when the saccharine piano score kicked in.
What, I wondered, was the point of casting doubt over Hoover’s sexual inclinations while completely ignoring the fact that he aided the “Lavender Scare” of the 1950s, which saw scores of State Department workers fired for being homosexual, or merely suspected of such? Could a Hollywood filmmaker not see the irony in making a sympathetic portrait of a man who fed the dirt to McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee, which resulted in film industry blacklists and many ruined careers?
On the plus side, Eastwood does continue his ongoing critique of American masculinity: Hoover is portrayed as a prissy desk-bound martinet prone to using gun-toting photo ops and action-packed comic books to give the illusion of him being a brave agent in the field. Eastwood’s recurring theme that the government is more interested in propaganda than reality — also explored in “Flags of Our Fathers” and “Changeling” — is probably more libertarian than leftist, but clearly shows how little things change over the decades.