Unless you’re someone who wants to find Dick Cheney’s secret lair so you can hang out and watch football with a neoconservative mastermind, it’s probably easy to guess your opinion of J. Edgar Hoover, long-time FBI chief and enemy of the civil rights movement. What you might make of Clint Eastwood’s biopic J. Edgar is less easy to predict.
Charting Hoover’s life from a repressed mama’s boy to a right wing radical trying to blackmail MLK out of the Nobel Prize, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) forgoes proselytizing while managing to get away with lines like “Due process of law? What about the threat to our country!?” Hoover almost seems beyond politics, as he treats all of the eight presidents under whom he serves with suspicion or contempt. It’s his personal predilections that determine his approach to crime-fighting; the Hoover of J. Edgar created a fingerprint database and kept files on everybody not necessarily because he was an active assailant of civil liberties and privacy, but because he was a librarian at heart: This is a guy who takes his dates to the Library of Congress.
It’s a chilly movie, not just in its approach to Hoover but because of Eastwood’s reliably icy palette. For the most part, J. Edgar is an even-keeled, sometimes plodding journey through a life, and the only chills it provides come from the fact that it takes place in a permanent winter.
But the off-putting surface makes for a few ambiguously tense moments, especially given its treatment of Hoover’s sexuality. A convincing DiCaprio manages to make his young Hoover both a flirt and a starched square. When he proposes to his secretary, Helen (Naomi Watts), on their third date, it’s hard to be sure whether Hoover is being a career man who’s simply practical about his sex life, or if he really doesn’t know how these things work.
Helen's red lipstick can’t quite glow through movie’s cold shimmer, and no sexual energy cracks the surface. (Considering this is an exchange between DiCaprio and Watts, that’s saying something.) The blood that turns up on Hoover’s lips later, as he tussles with a would-be lover, shines a little brighter. These moments pop, and they’re not accidents. J. Edgar is a well thought out film, but it’s more fun to assess than it is to sit through, and none of the key figures on screen are having much fun.
The small army of character actors (Dermot Mulroney squawking “New Joysey”) liven things up occasionally. So, too, does the analysis of a wood expert played by Stephen Root (Office Space, Newsradio); his examination of a ladder serves as a microcosm of Hoover’s early embrace of what we now call forensics, and it’s the most enjoyable through-line in the movie.
Yes, that’s right: a movie covering the career of a repressed homosexual and alleged cross-dresser who used illegal methods to chase some of the most lurid and charismatic criminals (and presidents!) of the century finds its most exciting moments in the scenes about wood grain. There’s something laughably square and totally unique about this, which you could also say about most any Eastwood movie.