You'd think Clint Eastwood would be the right guy to direct a movie about J. Edgar Hoover. After all, who better to tell the story of the 20th century's most influential law enforcement officer, the man who wrote the rule book on fighting crime only to disregard those rules when they prevented him from getting his man, than Dirty Harry himself? Or, to be less obvious, what would the man responsible for "White Hunter Black Heart," "A Perfect World" and "Million Dollar Baby" — movies about men who defied authority, be it Hollywood, the law or God — bring to the life story of the man who held authority over the country for nearly 50 years? Alas, Clint Eastwood's stately biopic "J. Edgar" is a frustrating experience. For nearly 2 hours and 20 minutes we are held captive by the possibility of a major revelation or insight into a man whose obsession with cataloging every single detail of a person's personal and professional life foretold the collapse of privacy. We get hints, intimations and suggestions of darker urges that shaped Hoover's behavior, but nothing concrete about the man's personality, and no attitude whatsoever toward his actions. Eastwood mistakes vagueness for ambiguity and puts us in the position of being armchair psychiatrists.
The most obvious (and possibly most entertaining) approach to this material would be to treat it like one of those ripped-from-the-headlines '30s Warners pictures, complete with gossip and innuendo. (We get a charge in one scene when we see famous bits from "The Public Enemy" being shown to a cheering audience.) The other approach to the material would be to concentrate on just a few defining moments. It is extremely difficult to condense a man's life into an extended runtime. "Malcolm X" did it, but then again it was focusing on 20 years, not 50. (It still managed to bring it up to the present with that startling final scene of Nelson Mandela addressing a classroom.) "Nixon" also did it, but Oliver Stone, unlike Eastwood, has a singular gift for innovative visuals and editing that gives his movies drive. The model for a movie like "J. Edgar" is something like Danny DeVito's criminally underrated "Hoffa." Like "J. Edgar," it also uses a flashback structure, butscreenwriter David Mamet doesn't bother with trying to cram a man's lifeinto a conventional narrative. Hoffa is simply presented as-is, and we take in how those around him react to his actions. By doing that, we come away understanding Hoffa's achievements as a labor leader, but also understand that his ego and quest for power led to him eventually losing sight of his original intentions. (Interestingly, the highlight of "Hoffa" is the extended sequences where he squares off with Robert Kennedy.) A typical scene in "J. Edgar" is of two people sitting in a darkened room talking around what is on their minds. If you're going to make a movie consisting of these kinds of scenes, you'd better make sure they have something interesting to say. Or, at the very least make clear what it is they are "not" saying. (Tom Stern's drab cinematography doesn't help matters. While not as bad as his work in Eastwood's "Changeling," it makes you not want to see the color brown for at least three months. His lighting is like Gordon Willis minus texture — or soul.)
At 81, Eastwood has spent the last 10 to 15 years making movies where he seems to be re-examining not only his own image, but the image of stoic, non-verbal men, He's been deconstructing the notion of masculinity before men were told it was okay to get in touch with their feelings. The idea that men needed to do whatever it took to get the job done was being undercut by the (necessary) assertion of feminine and racial equality. Eastwood's best films are about men reeling from change and how they either reject it or are humbled by it. In "Million Dollar Baby" (his best film in the last decade), boxing trainer Frankie Dunn is constantly questioning God's plan only to get a comeuppance when he demands unquestioning faith in his training methods from his fighters. A "Perfect World" saw Eastwood deconstructing the Western showdown by setting a generational clash of law and disorder on the eve of the Kennedy assassination. ("A Perfect World" is a far more complex breakdown of Western myths than the somewhat overrated "Unforgiven.") "White Hunter Black Heart" told a thinly fictionalized version of John Huston's recklessness while making "The African Queen," with Eastwood playing Huston as a filmmaker learning that trying to exert the same kind of control he has on a movie set in everyday life can lead to self-destruction. Even less successfulefforts saw Eastwood attempting to re-think history, considering if his generation got things wrong. His two-part World War II saga "Flags of Our Fathers" and "Letters from Iwo Jima" had moments of great irony hinting that Eastwood might've learned something from "Saving Private Ryan;" too bad, in the end, he wound up buying into the myths of the Greatest Generation. "Hereafter" found Eastwood confronting mortality; too bad the movie got all New Age-y in its final sequence. And in the disastrous "Gran Torino," Eastwood directed himself in what felt like his farewell performance as Korean War vet Walt Kowalski, a longstanding racist forced to realize he was wrong about everything; too bad the movie played Walt's racism for laughs and came off like a recruitment film for the Tea Party.
Every movie Eastwood makes seems to be in preparation for his next one. Taking on the life of J. Edgar Hoover suggested Eastwood was ready to tackle one of the most polarizing figures of his generation, and by doing so confronting the two topics he's often accused of shying away from: sexuality and race. There is evidence that Eastwood is more than capable of handling adult sexuality; his performance in the New Orleans cop procedural "Tightrope" saw him playing a man grappling with unhealthy sexual urges. Unfortunately Eastwood has given his critics more than enough opportunities to accuse him of insensitivity with ugly portrayals of women and gays in movies like "The Rookie" and "Sudden Impact." His track record for handling race is even spottier, with black characters being subservient yet equal. (Don't even bother bringing up "Bird.") But with "J. Edgar" it would seem Eastwood would have to tackle these issues head-on. He doesn't. He blinks. Hoover's sexuality is treated as a case of repression crossed with the smothering of a mother from hell. Screenwriter Black, who wrote the terrifically insightful "Milk," seems to have written the script of "J. Edgar" from a 2011 perspective, as if he's saying, "Isn't it too bad Hoover wasn't allowed to live in a more open society where his sexuality wouldn't have been an issue?" That's a great notion but it's one that Eastwood and DiCaprio are not operating from. The movie winds up working at cross-purposes, and would've been better served by simply dumping all the scenes with Hoover's mother or just relegating her to one early sequence. (That's why biopics like "Citizen Cohn" and "The Aviator" work so well.) That extra time could've been used to strengthen one of the other more interesting relationships, like Hoover's connection with his longtime companion Clyde Tolson. As it stands, Hoover's relationship with Tolson comes awfully close in some scenes to resembling that of Mr. Burns and Smithers. They're like the first bromance. They're so chaste in their affection that when they have their big fight, the scene seems to come out of nowhere. When they kiss, we laugh, not out of nervousness, but because there's no passion or preparation. When Hoover takes out Ms. Gandy on a date and she rebuffs his advances, we don't know if her rejection sours him on women or if he's thrilled that she's as dedicated to her work as he is. On a basic psychological level the movie doesn't even bother with suggesting that Hoover wanted to sleep with his mother, Ms. Gandy or Tolson. We think that's what's going on, but we're never certain. (If we were to go by the movie, Hoover apparently died without ever having sex.)
And Hoover's racism is transformed into his crusade against communist radicals. His battles against civil rights leaders are reduced to his attempts to ruin the reputation of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. When he's listening to a recording of King having sex, we wonder if Hoover is jealous of such a blatant act of sexuality. The same goes with his taping of President Kennedy. Is Hoover envious because they're having all the fun? And why does he hate communists so much? We never hear him articulate an argument. WhenBobby Kennedy tells him that our enemies are now foreign, not domestic, he makes perfect sense. But Hoover disregards his warnings, suggesting a deep-seeded paranoia of everyone. There's a whiff if Jack D. Ripper to his campaign against Dr. King. He believes King to be a communist threatening to contaminate the soul of the American people. (I was going to write "our precious bodily fluids.") A racial slur by Hoover's mother plants the notion early on that he is someone who parrots his mother's views, but we never hear him use a racial slur himself.
San Antonio-based film critic Aaron Aradillas is a contributor to The House Next Door, a contributor to Moving Image Source, and the host of “Back at Midnight,” an Internet radio program about film and television.