erik lundegaard

J. Edgar
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J. Edgar (2011)

WARNING: THE FBI ALWAYS GETS ITS SPOILERS

Biopics are tough. Take a life that has no discernible story arc, create one, and stuff it into two hours of movie time. Fun.

“J. Edgar,” written by Dustin Lance Black and directed by Clint Eastwood, doesn’t do a poor job of it, but it does a familiar job of it. We get the famous figure at the end of his life reflecting on the life. As in “Chaplin,” the intermediary is the biographer, or, in J. Edgar’s case, the biographers. Black also adds a twist at the end but I wish it were more of a twist. I wish it reflected on the entire life, the entire memoir, rather than a small portion of it.

First, let me say I was fascinated by the early stuff: Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer’s home being bombed by anarchists in 1919 and the “Palmer Raids” in response, and the general fear of Bolsheviks and anarchists along with the deportation not only of foreigners but of U.S. citizens like Emma Goldman (Jessica Hecht). It’s a time period we don’t see much in the movies, yet it felt familiar to me. It’s the same arguments, the same overreactions, we’ve had since 9/11. You get the feeling that what Hoover tells us in voiceover at the end of the movie—“A society unwilling to learn from the past is doomed; we must never forget our history”—is precisely what Clint Eastwood is telling his audience. Learn your history, punks.

In 1919, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is a prim, proper, legal functionary within the Bureau of Investigation, who, as he survives the various scandals of the Harding-era Justice Department, including the Palmer Raids, rises to power. In 1921, he is appointed deputy head of the Bureau. In 1924, he becomes its acting director. Finally, under Calvin Coolidge, he becomes its director—the sixth in the Bureau’s short history. (It was created in 1908.)

There’s a good, paranoid sense we get from DiCaprio’s Hoover. He assumes he’ll be bounced from his post at any minute—as easily as he bounces others—and thus scrambles to hold onto power. Should this have been underlined more? This fear of others doing to you what you do to others? The Golden Rule turned on its head? Hoover worried about being fired on a whim because he fired others on a whim. He knew the value of loyalty because he was disloyal. He sought the awful secrets of others because he knew the awful power of his own secrets. He was paranoid and combative because he assumed the world would act as unscrupulously as he did, which is why, in the end, he beat it. Because the world wasn’t as unscrupulous as he was. He had it at an advantage.

And didn’t. He was a closet case, trapped in homophobic times (OK, more homophobic times), without even a sympathetic family to fall back on. When he objects, later in the film, to having to dance with actresses like Ginger Rogers and Anita Colby, his mother (Judi Dench) reminds him of a neighborhood boy, “a daffodil boy,” she calls him, who killed himself after his secret came out. “Edgar,” she says, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil son. Now I’ll teach you to dance.” It’s a sad, effective scene.

Hoover does have a long-time companion, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), a law school graduate who quickly becomes the No. 2 man at the FBI, even though he mostly helps Hoover, a) keep an even keel, and, b) with his clothes. There’s an odd moment at Julius Garfinkel & Co., a D.C. department store. The store’s clerks inform Hoover his credit is no good since someone named John Hoover has been bouncing checks, leaving the Director of the Bureau of Investigation sputtering that he is himself and not someone else. Funny stuff. At which point Clyde vouches for him and a new line of credit is established. Giving up both “John” and “Johnnie,” he signs his name, momentously, J. Edgar Hoover. Ah! The legend being born. Unfortunately, the careful viewer will have noticed, in an earlier scene, a desk nameplate already reading “J. Edgar Hoover.” But Eastwood needs to film his momentous moments.

From there, it’s battling both gangsters and Hollywood’s glorification of gangsters. Hoover turns James Cagney, the charismatic bad guy of “The Public Enemy” in 1931, into the charismatic good guy of 1935’s “G-Men.” He pushes for labs, and forensic science, and the creation of a national database of fingerprints. He federalizes the bureau and lobbies Congress to make kidnapping a federal offense so he can involve the bureau in the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. He sells his agency—putting “Junior G-Man” badges in Post Toasties cereal and pushing for “Junior G-Men” comic books—while demoting anyone who steals his spotlight, such as Melvin Purvis, one of his best agents. Was this the first governmental mass-media campaigns in the U.S.? Was it propaganda? One gets the feeling an entire movie could be made about this issue alone. One wants a first-rate documentarian to take a stab at J. Edgar Hoover’s century.

Eastwood’s stab feels ... weak and misdirected. We’re watching two storylines here: The aged Hoover in the 1960s, on a mission to discredit Martin Luther King, Jr., detailing his own early history as justification. As the story he’s telling moves from the 1920s to the 1930s, so 1960s Hoover moves through various events of that tumultuous decade: JFK assassination, MLK Nobel Prize acceptance, Nixon inauguration. We assume the two stories will meet—we’ll get the 1940s and ‘50s—but the past, oddly, never gets out of the 1930s. We hear nothing about WWII, the creation of the CIA, and the rise and fall of McCarthyism. That’s a big gap. That’s too much history, dismissed.

DiCaprio, who does a good job, is still an odd choice. Over the years, Hoover has been played by Broderick Crawford, Ernest Borgnine, Vincent Gardenia, Ned Beatty and Bob Hoskins, actors with weight and heft and bulldog faces. Even a 1987 TV biopic, which covered Hoover’s early years as “J. Edgar” does, cast Treat Williams, who is dark and bulldogish, in the role. DiCaprio ultimately seems too light and pretty for the role.

And the point of it all? Clyde Tolson, whose old-age makeup is even worse than Hoover’s, tells his long-time companion that parts of the history he’s been dictating are bullshit. Hoover claims to have captured various gangsters but didn’t. He claims to have arrested Bruno Hauptman but didn’t. His story is false. This is the twist from Dustin Lance Black that I liked, and would’ve liked more if the falsehoods had been spread throughout Hoover’s reminiscences rather than sprinkled into a brief period in the mid-1930s. But one understands why they did it this way. Making the whole thing a lie would’ve risked alienating the audience. Moviegoers may want to see lies but not those kinds of lies. They want to see fiction but don’t want to be told they’re seeing fiction. That would just ruin the experience.

Even so, imagine the lesson. Done right, it could have reminded the audience to be wary of storytellers—not just Hoover telling his story but Eastwood telling Hoover’s. Truth, after all, is one of the first things to go in a Hollywood biopic. “J. Edgar” may be a movie about an unreliable narrator, but the movies themselves, from “Birth of a Nation” to “JFK,” are our greatest unreliable narrator.

—November 15, 2011

© 2011 Erik Lundegaard