Great jowls of fire! Never have I seen such useful prosthetics than in J. Edgar, director Clint Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black’s awards-baiting biopic about the infamous FBI director, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio). In it, wrinkles and liver spots and flab colonize the bodies of some of Hollywood’s best and brightest. But whereas cosmetic aging can often prove distracting or freakish onscreen, it seems to enhance the cast of J. Edgar, especially Leo, who uses his heft (archaically praised as “solid weight”) as a bulbous suit of armor to intimidate the shadowy forces conspiring against him.
Near his death in 1972, those forces are both past and present. As Hoover battles to keep his brand of Red Scare-mongering relevant to yet another presidential office looking to unseat him, he is also working with a biographer to solidify his, and the FBI’s, legacy. A fervent collector of salacious gossip on the likes of JFK, Martin Luther King Jr., and Eleanor Roosevelt (a few names dirtied in the film), Hoover has no issue using his agency for blackmailing purposes. But even more poignant than political pillow talk—likely to be revealed with Twitpics than contained in sealed files today—is the persuasiveness of fear, particularly when wielded by the government. Hoover is the O.G. of this tactic, and he spins stories like the 1919 anarchist bombings and Lindbergh kidnapping into societal parables, the lessons of which encourage national paranoia and xenophobia. In a way, you can trace his influence to the creation of the terror our country is currently warring against, and the film goes to great lengths in chronological flashbacks to illustrate this.
Hypocritically, Hoover, rumored to be a closeted gay and cross-dresser, was obsessed with cataloging both criminal and personal transgressions, which led to the establishment of the fingerprint database and the use of many modern forensics at the FBI. J. Edgar isn’t soft of this contradiction, but the romantic relationship between Hoover and his associate director, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer)—undoubtedly the film’s juiciest allegation—is somewhat disappointing not because it’s hidden or “straightwashed,” but because it’s developed unevenly. Granted, it’s virtually impossible to be in the (cinematic) presence of Hammer without feeling both desperately enamored with and shamefully emasculated by him. The gargantuan, chiseled actor seems to have been ripped from the ’90s Abercrombie & Fitch ad campaigns that instilled feelings of male inadequacy and lust in a generation of gay teens (myself included). Hoover reacts in kind to Tolson, overcompensating with push-ups and installing a height-enhancing platform behind his desk before bringing him in for an interview.
As with his professional life, Hoover counters feelings of impotence with sadism, illustrated no more painfully than in a scene where he berates an elderly, post-stroke Tolson for not enunciating his words. As heart-wrenching as this tortured cycle should play, the relationship never builds the momentum to support its emotionally climactic scenes. Working mainly off meaningful glances and catty tête-à-têtes regarding clothing or gossip, the pair does not seem entirely authentic. Perhaps this is due to a lack of historical material to substantiate their courtship, but the film is confused about whether it wants to remain coyly ambiguous or shill for a more sensational Brokeback Mountain–style romantic tragedy.
What I found more tragic and compelling was Hoover’s Norman Bates–like relationship with his mother (complete with twisted, postmortem mommy drag!), played by a deliciously cruel Dame Judi Dench. She is archetypically overbearing and critical, and her misanthropic outlook on life—that all the human race has gone to shit—works terrifically to foster her son’s insane paranoia and professional overzealousness. If Hoover is particularly abusive and dismissive of his coworkers, he definitely picks it up at home: “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son,” his mother replies coldly to a veiled reference Hoover makes about his homosexuality. In moments like this, the audience empathizes with Hoover. And when dealing with such a vile, self-hating, dubiously moralistic asshole, that is no small feat.
J. Edgar is in theaters now. Also in Out, a conversation between the film’s Dustin Lance Black and Armie Hammer.