Dave White
J. Edgar Review

Dave's Rating:


From the mixed-up files of...

Sorry, fans of historical biopics that play fast and loose with speculation and the great gay "what if," your ticket price will not include a montage of of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as -- to quote Paris Is Burning -- a "butch queen, first time in drags at a ball." He puts on his mom's dress once, but he can't accessorize. Nor will you thrill to him clutching Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in any kind of makeout moment.

Sorry, fans of historical biopics that take a famous person's life and use it as a jumping off point for other agendas. (See Todd Haynes's I'm Not There for its excellently splintered, quintessentially strange investigation of all the Bob Dylans you ever loved before.) All you get here is Hoover's greatest hits -- his battle against Communists, Depression-era gangsters, the Lindbergh kidnapping and his pursuit to defame Dr. Martin Luther King -- visually delivered via Clint Eastwood's sober direction and DiCaprio's fearful, rigid, perfection-mad Hoover.

Sorry, fans of dynamic, emotional, storytelling. This is late-model Eastwood paired with a script by Dustin Lance Black (already experienced in boilerplate biopic mechanics, thanks to Milk), where all the details are in place but the long slow boat to the final act is more about patiently waiting for -- rather than excitedly anticipating -- what comes next. The only truly relatable human being on screen is Hammer as Tolson, who was, allegedly, Hoover's longtime, unconsummated companion. DiCaprio does what he's supposed to do, and that's be the guy who uses his power like a weapon, the sort of man who can make a parting "Good day to you" feel like both a threat and a judgment. His performance is about the longing to express his love for Hoover and the brutal, crushing cost of being alive and gay before it was socially allowed. If the movie has any feeling at its core, it's thanks to him.

Sorry, fans of history lessons told in a way that feels relevant to where the world is right now. Because even though the kind of ideological mania Hoover represented and punishment-based politics he played are both running rampant in the United States right now, you wouldn't necessarily use this movie as an example of connectivity. It feels bound to its era and it's got the color-drained sets and faces to prove it.

But good news for you, fans of old-timey-looking stuff, because Clint Eastwood's art directors and set designers never disappoint. As objects, his period movies are never not handsome and deep with detail. They're impeccable here, too, right down to all the envy-making wooden file cabinets. If it's vintage furniture and menswear porn you're after, here's where to find it, and if that's all it takes to make you happy -- I'll confess that sometimes that is all it takes for me, then enjoy.


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