'J. Edgar,' starring Leonardo DiCaprio, draws a portrait of the FBI founder as riven and repressed, but misses his real substance.
Warner Bros. Pictures/AP
Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” starring Leonardo DiCaprio, is an old-style biopic with new-style content. As much as it tries to encompass the full career of FBI founder J. Edgar Hoover from 1919 until his death in 1972, the film inexorably turns on Hoover’s alleged homosexuality based on the lifelong bachelor’s 40-plus-year close friendship with his second in command, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Call it “Brokeback Bureau.”
There’s nothing sensationalistic about this approach. On the contrary, Eastwood and his screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, who wrote the Oscar-winning script for “Milk,” which was about gay activist Harvey Milk, deliberately avoid the sort of scurrilousness that Hoover himself often favored in exposing the dark secrets (or trumped-up secrets) of his targets. “J. Edgar” is a lot fairer to Hoover than he was to his many enemies – real or imagined.
But fairness here is often indistinguishable from wishy-washiness. It’s relatively easy to portray Hoover in fairly sympathetic terms if you exclude or play down, as this film does, his more noxious legacies – especially his use of FBI-paid provocateurs during the civil rights era and his hounding of Martin Luther King Jr. (Few blacks served in the FBI during Hoover’s 48-year run as director.)