One of the more alarming things I notice, as my half-century mark approaches, is how many people I’ve watched not only grow up from childhood, but turn the corner & begin the march toward middle-age themselves. There aren’t many more striking examples of this than Leonardo DiCaprio.
I remember when he was the little kid on Growing Pains
, & the period when he appeared in movies like The Quick and the Dead
& Total Eclipse
& his voice had that grating, screechy sound to it, & then his relatively dignified tenure as a teen idol in the wake of Titanic
. I never thought I’d be able to take him seriously as anyone older than twenty-three, but within a few years there he was, fine as Howard Hughes in Scorcese’s The Aviator
, & over The Departed
& Shutter Island
& others he gradually stopped being an overgrown ingénue & became an intelligent, substantive leading man.
Now, at 37, DiCaprio plays the title character in J. Edgar
, Clint Eastwood’s episodic biopic of the FBI dark lord. In much of his footage he clumps around his office, dictating his memoirs to a string of subordinates, his boyish, full-cheeked features buried under jowly, chalky-skinned old-age makeup. Hard as it is to believe, Leonardo DiCaprio doesn’t seem ridiculous playing a man in his seventies.
He’s just as believable playing Hoover in his twenties, scooting around D.C. in 1919 on a bicycle, stalking communists for the Department of Justice, or struggling, against a ham-fisted tradition, to get some semblance of scientific method into American criminal investigations, or gingerly negotiating with his steely mother (Judi Dench) for her approval. By this account, Edgar doesn’t seem to have had much of a father figure; his old man, played in a very brief but memorable turn by Jack Donner, seems to have wandered in from a Gothic horror movie.
We see the middle-vintage Hoover, gradually amassing power with the help of his platonic Lady Macbeth, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), or bonding with his inseparable deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), & eventually learning how to politely blackmail Attorneys General & Presidents. In a quiet way, DiCaprio gives Hoover a complex character—he truly believes in & aspires to his own wholesome-gangbuster vision, but he also knows very well that he’s faking it, & it terrifies him.
Aside from the performances of DiCaprio & his costars, J. Edgar
is less successful—it’s a hurried, harried, cluttered chronicle history, fast-paced without any particular dramatic urgency. Eastwood is skillful enough, & Hoover’s story is astounding enough, that the film can’t fail to be interesting & watchable. But the script, by Dustin Lance Black, is a lesser piece of work than his screenplay for Milk
. Black & Eastwood hustle us, with little context, past some of the more colorful Hoover highlights—Emma Goldman, Bruno Hauptmann, Alvin Karpis. But the movie’s real interest is Hoover’s personal life, particularly as regards his longtime companion Tolson.
Though the depictions of Hoover & Tolson’s intimate life are necessarily speculative, Black & Eastwood remain mum as to whether their relationship was ever consummated. Still, the movie’s best scenes are built on what seems reasonably evident, even from their public life: that they were a married couple. The relevance of this, from Black & Eastwood’s point of view, is presumably that Hoover’s style as Director of the FBI—his bullying, secretive paranoia, his intense image-consciousness—arose inevitably from his psychology as a closeted man. This is the hypothesis which occurs to many of us armchair shrinks from reading even a superficial account of Hoover’s career, so I don’t know that it qualifies as any great insight by itself.
It does link to a great & terribly relevant subject, though: that part of the American national psyche that allowed Hoover to thrive for so long. This, I’m afraid, is just what the movie misses, & it’s why J. Edgar
, though well-made & rich in period detail, never really becomes an epic. The movie is never deliberately campy—there is a crossdressing scene, but strikingly it comes at a solemn, tragic moment—and I appreciated that Eastwood & Black don’t mock Hoover for the pain & misery that, perhaps, helped to produce his outrages. But I don’t know that their movie ever fully acknowledges the pain & misery that he inflicted on others.