November 4, 2011




J. EDGAR:  Watch It At Home – Brokeback Hoover


It’s a little unexpected that of all the films Clint Eastwood has directed, his new biography J. EDGAR most resembles The Bridges of Madison County.  Measured and mournful, the film, which opened the AFI Film Festival in Los Angeles last night and opens nationwide next week, provides a superficial account of American politics over 50 years while favoring the story of an agonized love that dared not speak its name.

The title, of course, refers to J. Edgar Hoover, the first and only head of what became the FBI from the post-World War I era until Nixon was in the White House.  Hoover (played by Leonardo DiCaprio) was legendary for his iron-willed control of his agency and, behind the scenes, for his “private files” that supposedly contained the dirt on every public figure in the country, which he used unmercifully to blackmail everyone from Presidents on down to bend to his every command.


Dustin Lance Black’s script (he wrote Milk) has a loose flashback structure that jumps from the 1960s, when Hoover is dictating his memoirs to a variety of junior G-men (including, disconcertingly, Chuck Bass from Gossip Girl) while obsessing over the sex tape he’s recorded of Martin Luther King, Jr. (he thinks its existence will compel King to turn down the Nobel Peace Prize he’s just won), to the early part of his career, especially his pursuit of anarchists and Bolsheviks in the 1920s and the investigation of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping in the 1930s.  Along the way he builds and protects his power base, constantly increasing the bureau’s budget and autonomy.


The emotional focus of the story, however, becomes Hoover’s close relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), and his savagely repressed homosexual feelings for his closest aide, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).  In the film, at least, Tolson wants the two of them to have a full-fledged romance, but Hoover, while obsessed with Tolson and keeping him close till the end of his life, is–at least in part because of his mother’s brutal rejection of the very suggestion that he could be gay–unable to reciprocate, and even forces himself into relationships with occasional women.  The result is emotional torture that goes on for decades.

J. Edgar is an extremely odd movie, sometimes powerful but not really successful.  It’s hardly news that a swift pace isn’t part of Eastwood’s repertoire as a director–when his material has a pulpy drive, like Mystic River or Grand Torino, that deliberate pace can bring a crushingly effective fatalism to the storytelling.  His historical pageants like Changeling, Flags of Our Fathers and Invictus, however, often just feel slow, and that’s the case here; even with a half-century of dramatic material to choose from, the pace is often glacial.


Eastwood is also famous for not favoring a great deal of script development–if he reads something he likes, he just films it, more or less as is.  In this case, Black’s screenplay needed some more work.  Huge swaths of American history are summed up in bite-sized pellets with little or no explanation (you’ll get a better idea of Hoover’s role in the pursuit of Depression-era bank robbers by watching Billy Crudup as a young J. Edgar in Michael Mann’s Public Enemies).  Although intellectually one can see how Hoover’s use of massive, unchecked power against perceived threats ties into concerns about revenge and the justification for violence that have always fascinated Eastwood, as presented here they have little force or complexity.

Hoover had to have been an immensely complicated man, both hero and monster, able to function at the highest levels of political strategy but also an uncomfortable outsider, but the figure portrayed in the film exists in a narrow band of ambition, repression and panic.  (While we see his obsession with King, there’s no consideration of any feelings he may have had about race–it’s all subordinated to Hoover conflating what he sees as King’s aberrant sexual behavior to his dread of his own desires.)  All of this constricts DiCaprio’s performance–it’s hard to imagine him getting the Oscar for this role.  He ends up re-using mannerisms from his (better) Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and looking generally agonized.  Secondary characters are even thinner–to describe Naomi Watts’s role as “loyal secretary” is to say absolutely everything there is about her character (there’s an early scene where she expresses that she has her own ambitions, but we never learn anything else about her after that).  And although Hammer is the most human character in the story as Tolson, since he’s the only one who gets to express his emotions, mostly all he does is cast despairing and disapproving glances in Hoover’s direction.

Stylistically, J. Edgar almost looks and feels like an imitation of Eastwood’s house style:  Tom Stern’s photography drained to an almost monochromatic consistency; spare plinking piano keys for music; editing by Joel Cox and Gary Roach that is never in a rush.  The old-age make-up on DiCaprio is fairly successful, but Watts and Hammer look mummified.

In an era where Hollywood has almost abandoned the concept of serious adult biography, the fact that Eastwood is still out there making movies like J. Edgar is nothing but admirable, and the film’s final act, in which Hoover wrestles both with his legacy and his (apparently) never-realized love for Tolson, is sometimes quite moving.  In the end, though, it doesn’t come to much more than warmed-over Brokeback Mountain with a lot of prosthetics, and Hoover’s monumental, unsettled place in American history merited more than that.

About the Author

Mitch Salem
MITCH SALEM has worked on the business side of the entertainment industry for 20 years, as a senior business affairs executive and attorney for such companies as NBC, ABC, USA, Syfy, Bravo, and BermanBraun Productions, and before that, at the NY law firm of Weil, Gotshal & Manges. During all that, he has more or less constantly been going to the movies and watching TV, and writing about both since the 1980s. His film reviews also currently appear on and In addition, he is co-writer of an episode of the television series "Felicity."