By Eleanor Ringel Cater
The last time Clint Eastwood tried to make up for the implied homophobia in his Dirty Harry character, it was a stumbling, ineffective adaptation of “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil” (though, to give Clint a break, the book is stumbling, ineffective and false, false, false in its claim to be non-fiction).
A more mellow, more awarded, more experienced Eastwood has another go at it with “J. Edgar,” his ambitious, richly filmed and ultimately unsatisfying take on J. Edgar Hoover, the founder and, for almost 50 years, head of the FBI.
What Eastwood and his star, Leonardo DiCaprio, try to do is reconcile the at-odds aspects of Hoover’s character. Not an easy undertaking for any bio-pic, but it’s especially difficult in this case, given Hoover’s secretive nature.
On the one hand, he’s the hard-headed hardliner who kept the Commies at bay, locked up the likes of Al Capone and virtually invented modern crime-busting as it existed for most of the 20th century (he’s the one who came up with fingerprinting).
On the other, he was a mommy’s-boy bully who kept secret files on anyone he disliked, including the Kennedys and Martin Luther King.
He was also, by most accounts, a deeply closeted homosexual who, on occasion, may have donned a cocktail dress.
I’m just not sure even Eastwood knows exactly what to think of Hoover. As a result, “J. Edgar” is a deeply unbalanced film. The screenplay is by “Milk” Oscar-winner Dustin Lance Black, which, to me at least, suggests a genuine attempt on the Eastwood’s part to explore what sort of prejudice Hoover must’ve faced and how crucial it was for him to remain closeted.
Further, for all the back and forth about Good-Edgar and Bad-Edgar, one thing remains clear: there is definitely a love story of sorts at the heart of the movie — a romance between Hoover and his top aid, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, “The Social Network’s” Winklevoss twins) Whether or not they ever actually had sex remains cryptic. Still, they are unquestionably a couple — meals every day together, a shared suite when they go to the races at Delmar, etc.
But I wish “J. Edgar” didn’t pull out the same old whipping…person: Mom (natch), played with domineering relish by Judi Dench. In one scene, she reminds Edgar of an incessantly bullied classmate of his, dubbed “Daffy” by the other boys at school. “It wasn’t because he liked daffodils,” she sneers, adding, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffy son.”
The picture works at cross-purposes (never mind cross-dressing which only comes up once). Early scenes of a heroic Hoover — doing everything from personally reassuring Charles Lindbergh that his baby will be returned to pulling a gun on any number of Public Enemies — is the first version. Near the very end, we get a second, debunking version, meant to underscore Hoover’s desperate need for self-glorification. But it happens in a last-act rush that’s ultimately not as effective as it might have been.
“J Edgar” isn’t a stupid movie. Nor is it a cheat. But unlike Oliver Stone’s crackling “Nixon,” which shook Richard Millhouse every which way he could be shaken, Eastwood’s approach is almost sorrowful. Almost tender. Almost detached. Here’s this guy (Hoover) whose idea of a date was a stroll through the Library of Congress. Who lived with his mother until he was in his forties. Who wasn’t altogether sorry about the JFK assassination…
A CURIOUS SIDE NOTE: In a twisted bit of re-written history, the movie has Hoover calling Bobby Kennedy after the Dallas tragedy to tell him the President’s been shot and no one else knows yet. Well, no one, I suppose, except all those people in Dallas who saw his head blown apart. Anyway…
Playing his second germ-o-phobe (after Howard Hughes in “The Aviator”), DiCaprio is almost assured — and deserves — an Oscar nomination. He works incredibly hard here, and conveys as much of Hoover’s inner life as he can. His talent and commitment take the movie over many of its rougher patches. Further, he’s given strong support by Hammer and Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s secretary (and, it could be said, “office wife.”)
But by the end, I really don’t know J. Edgar Hoover any better than I did 137 minutes earlier.
Maybe he would’ve wanted it that way.