Biopics are strange things. When done correctly, they can illuminate a historical figure's life and character with real insight, increasing the figure's impact and influence in the process. This is rare, though. Most often, biopics end up being long, dry, bloodless affairs, desperately attempting to be sympathetic to their subject while not denying his/her character flaws. They are often handicapped by their wide scope--how many other films ever attempt to cover a character's entire lifespan? The most effective biopics are nearly always those which approach their subject in the most creative manner--whether pinpointing one particular point in the character's life to focus on (Lawrence of Arabia, Patton), tossing factual accuracy out the window (Young Mr. Lincoln, Amadeus), or attempting to capture character or impact through alternative, impressionistic means (I’m Not There).
Unfortunately, J. Edgar attempts none of these things. Instead, it attempts to show every major event in FBI Chief J. Edgar Hoover's entire 46 year career, heavily narrating it throughout as an elderly Hoover in the Sixties dictates his self-serving memoirs. As a result, the film is virtually devoid of a dramatic arc, and forced to rely on Hoover's (playedby Leonardo DiCaprio) relationship with right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). The film portrays them as devoted romantic partners who nevertheless remain chaste out of Hoover's fear and hatred of homosexuality. This is a potentially controversial move as neither of them ever admitted to such a love, but it is based on fairly strong conjecture by many not all) historians and does not seem unjustified. What's wrong with placing this at the center of the plot is that it attempts to demand our attention based on a lot of sublimated signals within a large historical narrative, then awkwardly shoehorns in emotional confrontations between the two men, including a sort of fistfight-cum-lover's quarrel which becomes downright ridiculous and laugh-inducing. Their relationship is never believable and hardly ever sympathetic--only in old age does their come any real tenderness (though Armie Hammer's make-up is so ridiculous it's hard to take anything he says seriously). Strangely, Clyde becomes something like the voice of reason in the film, telling Hoover when he's wrong and detailing his character flaws. I guess this is somehow supposed to relate to the tension in the film between criticizing Hoover and admiring him, but it comes off as ham-handed talking-to-the-audience moralizing instead of any sort of honest moral inquiry.
This is a shame, because a life of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the two or three most hated and controversial Americans of the 20th century (right after Joe McCarthy and Richard Nixon, two men the movie quotes Hoover as despising despite certain ideological similarities), and his story is an ideal place to question issues like the extent of federal authority, rights of privacy, police authority and brutality, and the conflict between freedom and security. The movie is at its best when detailing the exploits of Hoover's early career. Hoover forcefully makes his case for the necessity of a highly-trained, well-funded federal police force in the face of threats like anarchist and Bolshevik bombings in the wake of WWI, prohibition-era gangsters, and bank robbers/spree-killers like John Dilinger, Baby Face Nelson and Bonnie and Clyde. If the film had confined itself to this era, simply chronicling the formation and rise of the FBI Hoover's role in that, it might have been much better. The 1919 Red Scare era is an especially poorly remembered historical period, and the film could have done much to illuminate it. I suppose that with Michael Mann's Public Enemies and HBO's Boardwalk Empire so current, though, the filmmakers decided to avoid too much rehashing of Prohibition-era gangsters.
The most interesting episode involves the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, and the role of the FBI in catching the kidnapper (though doubt remains about whether he acted alone and/or was the one really responsible for the death of the child). This is the one place we are given detail about how the FBI worked and Hoover's embrace of new scientific methods of forensics to improve police work. But even here much of the story is glossed over through voiceovers, with only a few of the high points actually filmed. I am fascinated by historical events, processes, and turning points like this, and if the film had become more of a historical essay, attempting to elucidate certain trends and define the historical moment (a la a more factual Assassination of Jesse James by the Coward Robert Ford), then the narration would have been justified, even welcome, and the movie as a whole might have become far more thought-provoking. Instead, screenwriter Dustin Lance Black really wants this to be an in-depth character study of an enigmatic and tortured figure, and the narration of past events seems mostly to be meant to let us inside Hoover's worldview. But we never grow close to him, and the reluctance of the film to make too many strict judgments, attempting to leave Hoover somewhat unexplained and enigmatic, instead ends up coming off muddled and uninteresting. Even the sensationalized aspects of the story are unexciting: The very dubious (even scurrilous) accusations that Hoover enjoyed dressing up like a woman are here dramatized as a weird expression of grief at his mother's death, where he pulls on her necklace and dress in an effort to remember her. The moment is weirdly reminiscent of Norman Bates, but it's played low-key and semi-sympathetically, and it's not clear how this is supposed to fit in with the accusations--did this apparent one-time-thing end up becoming a habit? Did someone see him like this--alone in his room--and spread the word? As far as I can tell the scene is pure fantasy, but it's drawn out an agonizingly long time as if it reveals some dark secret or key to Hoover's identity. (And I'm not even mentioning the egregious use of an Eleanor Roosevelt letter as some sort of exemplar of the beauties of Hoover and Tolson's love at the end.)
All this said, Black's script could (with a few tweaks) have been made into a moderately solid movie if it had been directed well. But Clint Eastwood films the thing in his habitual color palette of shadowy blues and grays, a style that worked in Mystic River and Letters From Iwo Jima but has grown remarkably stale and trying over the course of the last 8 movies. Eastwood has never been anyone's idea of a visual stylist, but he has managed to muster a certain warm, pictorial beauty a couple times in the past (Unforgiven, Bridges of Madison County). This washed-out, blue-gray scale thing has become just lazy though, not to mention rather ugly and boring. The plot may have been sluggish but it could still have been interesting if Eastwood had brought a fraction of the flair that, say, Scorsese brought to The Aviator (another, far better, DiCaprio biopic about a major 1920s-1940s figure). Instead, everything looks the same and everything feels the same, and it just drags you down.
With a cast and director and subject like this, this movie should have been a home run. Indeed, the idea seemed to connect strongly with audiences--I saw it on Saturday night with a sold-out crowd. Unfortunately, though, it's an intermittently interesting muddle that's likely to disappoint just about everybody.
Rating: 4/10 Stars