It's not often that a Clint Eastwood movie ends and the first words out my mouth are, "That's it?" Eastwood has earned his reputation as our go-to man for films that juggle history, emotion, and desaturated tones with ease. His gently probing pictures usually give us something to sink our teeth into when we didn't know it was possible, and he manages to be exciting without being showy. This time, however, he seems to have his laser set to "tactful," because J. Edgar only hints at a story and never gets right to it.
Sure, it's better than if McG had done it, but the script by Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black never amounts to more than a Wikipedia page. It seems like every time they had an opportunity to go deeper and really make a statement, they backed away and shifted time periods. Wasn't this guy a major racist and opportunist? Although the film alludes to this (almost in passing), we never get any clear insight or learn anything that goes above and beyond History 101. The movie serves as a biopic of J. Edgar's rise to power, flip-flopping back and forth in time, glossing over the Lindbergh kidnapping, his trickery with Martin Luther King Jr., and the beginnings of forensic science. It doesn't give an opinion on any of these things, mind you, but it shows them.
The performances are worth coming out for (and to note, the feather-light script must have made it easy to breeze through scenes without cracking the over-the-top old-age makeup). Leonardo DiCaprio is as good as everyone says, although without the anchor of an opinion, his actions only amount to a lot of angry stomping and monologuing. The secretive man who knew too much about too many was surrounded in mystery himself--was he truly a homosexual, or was that a lie perpetrated by enemy governments to undermine his iron-clad authority? The movie never bothers to ask--but at least it makes a firm judgment, which is about the only time that happens. DiCaprio handles his Brokeback moments with a measured amount of believability, and a lot of that seems to be thanks to Armie Hammer, playing Hoover's companion and fellow FBI higher-up Clyde Tolson.
The two do the best they can with the material, which feels unrealistic and never gets past the superficial difficulties of being a homosexual 60-some odd years ago. They spend the first part of the film making goo goo eyes at each other, but as social rules demanded, never blatantly expressed themselves. As tension builds between them, the first private interaction we are privy to comes after Hoover mentions possibly marrying Dorothy Lamour, causing a fist fight and then a kiss. This seems like a straight writer's interpretation of how gay men behave, and although Black is a homosexual, the rest of the scenes featuring Hoover and Tolson never escape this feeling. I expected a more mature and interesting representation of their relationship from this team.
Perhaps the film was trying to be about too many things at once--this man not only changed the shape of our nation, but embodied its melting pot spirit (if racism, cross-dressing, paranoia, and doggedness are the ingredients). The movie acts like it's trying to avoid having Hoover create a file on it, so it plays it safe. If Eastwood's goal was for audiences to feel ambivalent about one of the most complicated, powerful men in American history, he achieved it.