“I remember you from my seminar at UVA. You grilled me pretty hard, as I recall, on the bureau’s civil rights record in the Hoover years. I gave you an A.”
Is it possible that one quick volley of expository dialogue, between Scott Glenn and Jodie Foster in “The Silence of the Lambs,” tells us more about how authority works at the FBI than the entirety of “J. Edgar”?
That might be overstating the case. But after enduring this ploddingly reticent new biography of America’s most famous law enforcement agent, one yearns for a little overstatement. “J. Edgar” is an inert epic, a mutually neutralizing collaboration between screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, who won an Oscar for “Milk,” and director Clint Eastwood, who keeps insisting he’s not Dirty Harry anymore. Regarding “the bureau’s civil rights record in the Hoover years,” there will be no grilling here. Instead, just one long view of the man himself: a committed, makeup-caked performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, Oscar-worthy in the most inevitable and perfunctory way.
“We needed more power to protect,” he recalls in voiceover, while dictating to one of his several subordinate biographers. It’s a good, juicily interpretable line, one of too few on offer here, and it gets summarily thrown away. He refers to an early appeal that Congress enable his young bureau to carry weapons and make arrests, in the name of public safety. And he refers to the protection of power. More to the point is the act of dictation, which goes on throughout the movie and is carefully revealed as an unreliable narration of his own political story.
DiCaprio’s Hoover has Naomi Watts as his mannerly secretary Helen Gandy, Judi Dench as his domineering, homophobic matriarch, and Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson, the right-hand man with whom he dined daily and was secretly in love. On this last front, the movie takes such pains to display compassion and tact that little room remains available for any genuine feeling. We’re left with a two-hour lament that it’s really just so unfortunate, for all our sakes, that Hoover couldn’t come out of the closet.
It seems like Black might have had in mind something along the lines of “Brokeback Mountain,” with just a dash — the cross-dressing, the whimpering “yes, mother” refrain — of “Psycho.” An indelicate approach, but a promising one, if it also could find the nerve to address the nature of American political dominion directly. But politics are perpetually and ruinously closeted here too.
Hoover’s legacy includes serious advancements in the application of forensic science to detective work — and in secret surveillance, blackmail, and other innately fascistic squashings of political dissent. His grudges against left-wingers exceeded even Richard Nixon’s in scope and vehemence. Eastwood acknowledges all of this but boringly prefers not to comment on it. Enlisting his regular cinematographer Tom Stern to keep things literally shadowy, he succeeds in failing to illuminate.
The director also throws a few scraps to his stock company of routinely shortchanged supporting players — here’s Stephen Root as a forensics guy, there’s Denis O’Hare as handwriting-analysis guy, nice to see them, thanks for coming. You’d never know that O’Hare once was riveting on stage as Bruno Hauptmann, the man whose involvement with the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby proved a crucial turning point in J. Edgar Hoover’s career. Probably O’Hare is too old for that part now; too bad he wasn’t able to advise Eastwood on how to keep Damon Herriman’s try at it from seeming so minor and TV-movieish. But anyway, there’s no use asking this film to be something it’s not.
What we really want to know, and won’t learn from “J. Edgar,” is what it meant to be the man in charge of an agency that would go on after him to draw earnest young recruits like Jodie Foster’s Clarice Starling, who work for the FBI because they still wake up in the dark and hear the screaming of the lambs.