I do have this to say about “J. Edgar,” the biopic about the life of F.B.I. Director J. Edgar Hoover that is one of many Oscar-bait flicks on tap: I certainly know a lot about the legendary administrator’s taste in clothing.
I speak not, of course, of the his rumored predilection for wearing women’s clothes (although that’s there as well), but rather his impeccable taste in men’s clothing. He apparently was quite the dandy, mocking the other agent’s for their shoddy attire, and hiring agents based on a man’s chosen cufflinks.
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
This is perhaps the most riveting aspect of this movie.
Director Clint Eastwood did a rare miss with this film. It could have been great. It could have been spectacular actually; the story of a man who became director of the FBI at 24, who was intensely powerful, one of the main protagonists in the story that is the 20th century. He made the FBI what it is today. He was an early advocate of forensic science. He was a spymaster. He was, in all likelihood, both gay and a cross-dresser. He was kind of a dweeb with a passion for devising elaborate catalog systems. He could act heroically, but thought Martin Luther King, Jr. was a filthy Communist.
But instead of a grand tale of the rise and decline of American dominance in the former century through one man’s eyes, we have a bloated, sepia-toned melodrama, complete with an over-bearing mother (played with relish by Judi Dench) and a weirdly campy love story. Leonardo DiCaprio is at his most squinty-eyed in this movie, both as the young, svelte Hoover, and the elderly, fat-suited, be-jowelled Hoover. DiCaprio’s performances are such gambles. Sometimes you get the brilliant, tight, cerebral DiCaprio from “The Departed”. Sometimes you get “The Beach”. He’s not terrible in this- not “Beach” terrible anyway- but there’s an absence of control in his performance, and trudging quality. He’s saying his lines, but doesn’t appear to be having any fun. The same goes true for Naomi Watts, who plays Hoover’s longtime secretary. Most of the fault seems to be with the script for them, which is written like a stodgy period piece on some sort of sub-BBC channel (Dustin Lance Black wrote the script, which seems incomprehensible after his luminous job a couple years ago on “Milk”.)
Armie Hammer is a bright spot in all the dourness. Playing Hoover’s second-in-command and possible lover Clyde Tolson, Hammer seems to glitter in the pool of mediocrity. His scenes with DiCaprio, while kind of melodramatic, are genuinely painful and gritty. Tolson and Hoover, whether or not they were actually romantically involved, had a wonderfully complex and layered relationship that’s conveyed well here. DiCaprio plays off of Hammer with a banter and casual affection that’s far more textured than the rest of the plots.
The primary issue is a simple one: the movie is just too long. At a solid two and a half hours, it slogs through the Red Scare, the bank robbery epidemic, the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby and the Kennedy assassination. There’s an unforgivable amount of voice over (the pretense is Hoover is writing his autobiography and is dictating to a series of young agents), and by the end you are so sick of watching DiCaprio in old-person makeup you don’t care about his machinations against Richard Nixon. It’s a semester of contemporary American history condensed into a class period. Which can be useful. But it doesn’t make it very much fun to watch.