By Steve Persall
Times Movie Critic
Clint Eastwood's latest history lesson, J. Edgar, is a movie as conflicted as its subject. Certainly a biography of such a polarizing American figure as J. Edgar Hoover through five decades of practically unchecked power should lead to a movie making blood boil.
Here it barely simmers, as Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) constantly seem at odds about what type of expose J. Edgar should be. The director sees another chance to revisit fading historical flash points, as he did well with Iwo Jima and apartheid and not so well with LAPD corruption in Changeling. Black sees the closeted flip side of Harvey Milk, with Hoover portrayed as someone hamstrung by homosexuality.
The latter portrayal eventually wrestles control of Eastwood's movie, and he doesn't seem as comfortable with that material. Like every other aspect of Hoover's career, it is handled with deferential care, to the extent that climactic title cards reveal more about the closeness of Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) and his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), than any kiss they may share.
Eastwood deflects the elephant in the room as long as possible, with a time-flipping look at Hoover's signature public accomplishments: creating the FBI and branding it with a celebrity sheen through pop culture propaganda, spawning forensic sciences with new tools like fingerprints and handwriting analysis, and capturing most-wanted criminals like Bruno Hauptmann, convicted of kidnapping and murdering Charles Lindbergh's son.
The darker sides of these accomplishments are mentioned only in passing. For all of Hoover's bluster to create confidential files on people he considered enemies to the United States — Martin Luther King, Eleanor Roosevelt and JFK, among them — Eastwood establishes no sense of outrage. Nobody except Tolson even questions the legality issues, and as played by Hammer he's an ineffectual fop. There's an excuse for all this, the movie declares, and it's Hoover's mother.
Judi Dench plays her as a political stage mom, expressing racist, puritanical ideals to a son who even in advancing years will only reply: "Yes, mother." She's also the reason Hoover stays in the closet, recounting a gay man nicknamed Daffy (short for daffodil) who killed himself.
"I'd rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son," she tells Hoover. Yes, mother.
At every turn Eastwood presents Hoover as a flawed but empathetic victim of circumstances. Even those he created were beyond his control.
DiCaprio's performance is sturdy enough to build a better movie around, perfectly capturing Hoover's clipped speech pattern and bulldog jaw. But his casting adds to the misguided softness of Eastwood's portrait. At least DiCaprio's age makeup is convincing; Tolson's latter years trap Hammer beneath enough lousy, discolored latex to pass as a burn victim.
Perhaps J. Edgar works against Eastwood's finest gift as a filmmaker, his instinct for intimate details that in this case don't matter. Maybe a director who isn't as one-take efficient would better notice the flaws as they unfold and accumulate. There might be a great movie about any of Hoover's triumphs and secrets, but not all at once.
Steve Persall can be reached at email@example.com or (727) 893-8365.