A disclaimer up front: I usually have little patience for biopics, which are often lazy recountings of common wisdoms with questionable casting. But there are ways to make the genre work. Recent successes include Milk, The Aviator, and now J. Edgar, which benefits greatly from the work of writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk), and Leonardo DiCaprio, whose tour de force performance as J. Edgar Hoover reminds us of his take on another volatile, misunderstood American legend, Howard Hughes. Add the stellar directorial work of Clint Eastwood and we have a winner, a surefire candidate for 2011 Top 10 lists.
Aside from telling, or half-speculating on, the “inside story” of the powerfully mysterious Hoover, J. Edgar tells a larger, action- and malfeasance-packed story over half the 20th century, between Hoover’s early days in the FBI in 1919 through his death in 1972. In a skillful but not at all schematic or predictable way, Eastwood deftly covers epic ground while maintaining uncanny focus on the man in the film’s crosshairs. Stops along the way include the largely forgotten Bolshevik revolution that never happened, the Lindbergh kidnapping, the rise and fall of ’30s gangsters as popular heroes, JFK’s day in Dallas, and the arrival of Nixon in the White House.
Through it all, there was Hoover in the background, a dogged, sometimes paranoid and pernicious Wizard of Oz. He survived eight presidents (sometimes by using blackmail tactics, as with Roosevelt). But who was he? The film considers that central question in a careful, circuitous, and open-ended way. He was a mama’s boy, who lived with his controlling, homophobic mother (Judi Dench) until age 40 and kept his relationship with his male companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), mum, away from prying eyes, all the while mastering the art of prying and exerting his vengeful spirit in the name of the public good.
Some ado has been made about macho-man Eastwood dealing with a gay theme, however restrained and implied. But he’s precisely the right man for this job, recognizing that the feat here is a grand exercise in narrative telegraphy, of exploring the shadows (and Tom Stern’s cinematography is awash in shadows and dark rooms) and saying a lot through the fragile art of considering what is not said.
In short, Eastwood, along with DiCaprio and Black, make our moviegoing day, while exploring the enigmatic life of a towering American figure. Whoever he was.