The trouble with biopics is the overwhelming pressure to shape a subject’s story into a neat arc, where a defining characteristic in the first act leads to a predictable uplift or downfall in the third. This approach never does justice to human complexity, and it only rarely does justice to a film. In the case of Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, the attempt to accordion J. Edgar Hoover’s 50-plus years with the FBI (including in its nascent stages, before it was called that) into two hours offers snapshots of many Hoovers without exploring any of them. Eastwood’s prim, respectful biography presents Hoover in turn as a muddy political metaphor, a lesson in self-mythologizing, and a case history in repression, but never particularly as a man.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hoover, seen alternately as a Department Of Justice up-and-comer and a fat-suited seventysomething, framing the film by dictating his life story to a series of interlocutors who ask polite questions on the audience’s behalf. A puritanical, humorless, driven man even in his 20s, he sets standards few can meet, whether he’s helping reorganize the Library Of Congress or recreating the newly defined FBI in his own image, via anti-radical pogroms and innovations in forensic science. Like Dubya in Oliver Stone’s W., he’s largely defined by his desire to please a controlling, withholding parent (Judi Dench); in particular, a key line from her about how she’d rather have a dead son than a gay one defines his lifelong undercurrent-laden-but-chaste relationship with fellow FBI administrator Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
In his script, Dustin Lance Black (Milk) hits some key milestones in Hoover’s life, particularly the Lindbergh-baby kidnapping, but he only defines Hoover in reaction to his mother and his era, and he never bridges the gap between the idealistic youth and the blackmailing politico. DiCaprio isn’t much help; he’s often compelling, but he rarely gets to clarify Hoover’s emotions or intentions. There’s obvious contemporary political relevance in many of Hoover’s offhanded statements—say, his conviction that it’s worth pursuing anyone who might commit crimes—and some more universal lessons toward the end of the film, where the gap between reality and his self-image becomes clear. But the gap between this nicely shot, neatly gift-wrapped package and messy human reality feels equally wide.