The fragile human body, aging or ailing, has been a favorite theme of director Clint Eastwood at least as far back as 1973’s Breezy, a lovely, understated May-December romance starring William Holden and Kay Lenz, and in countless films since, including Bird, White Hunter, Black Heart, The Bridges of Madison County, Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, and so on. In J. Edgar, his achronological life story of the FBI’s first director, who ruled over the Bureau with an iron fist for 48 years, images of the living, yet decaying, body are what turn a cookie-cutter biopic into something far more personal.
The script, by Dustin Lance Black, ranges in tone from by-the-numbers to unspeakably hysterical, as if he’d written it holding Susan Sontag’s essay on camp in one hand, his Milk Oscar holding open one of Syd Field’s screenwriting 101 guides nearby. As a director, Eastwood does almost nothing to punch up the flat material, or rein in the ridiculous, except to view all of it with a kind of contemplative, non-filtering neutrality. Historically, his attitude regarding screenplays has been one of calculated indifference, exemplified by his “the draft is fine, let’s shoot the draft” quote from the production of Changeling.
While comparisons to The Aviator (the other megalomaniac-biopic starring Leonardo DiCaprio) and Public Enemies (with which Eastwood’s film shares a key showdown between Hoover and Senator McKellar from 1936) seem inevitable, J. Edgar was shot and color-corrected to more closely resemble Changeling, with its patina of desaturated copper-green hues and a meticulous eye for the specific materials of the period’s rooms and attire.
Hoover’s enemies, from the anarchist bombers of the 1920s to Martin Luther King Jr., are almost always depicted in absence or shadow, unless they represent trophy victories (like Bruno Hauptmann or Alvin Karpis), while Hoover himself, along with Clyde Tolson and Helen Gandy (who would remain by his side until his death in 1972), are slowly overcome by age. J. Edgar depicts these things through mounds of latex makeup and fat suits, as well as actorly depictions of heart trouble, respiratory trouble, and palsy—all old-school devices, even if Eastwood is almost brazenly unabashed in using them. Before we see the young Hoover, we’re introduced to the old one with something like a shock cut, not dissimilar to the cut from “Tonight – 8:30” to the padded Robert De Niro that opens Raging Bull.
DiCaprio, by now well past the point where he needs to prove himself to critics, acts almost entirely with a pair of coal-black, rapacious, prosecutor’s eyes; his gaze and his froggy, beltway rasp help to push past the limitations of the heavy makeup and the prostheses. As Tolson, however, Armie Hammer complements DiCaprio perfectly, every interaction between the two a different dance than the last. The tenderness that Hammer’s Tolson extends to Hoover—scrupulous, sometimes harshly pragmatic, but always loving—is such that it’s not impossible for us to believe that Hoover was worthy of it. As Gandy, Naomi Watts has no “big moments” to speak of, but her main key of steely professionalism contains subtle shadings of pride, sorrow, and troubled skepticism. The supporting cast mostly appears in fleeting episodes, such as Josh Lucas, Zach Grenier, and Stephen Root, but each is allowed enough space to make a distinct impression.
Lots of critics and viewers (historian, history-curious, or otherwise) will want to try and read the tea leaves of J. Edgar to figure out what Eastwood thinks of the legendary G-man, what kind of guy he thinks Hoover was, whether he was good or bad, why he did the things he did, and so on. While those things are addressed in Black’s script, what remains at the forefront of Eastwood’s film is the dissolution of years, and its parallel effect on the body.
These observations of body (the fat, the diminished statures, the cataracts) go toward Eastwood’s long view of Hoover as a mere organism, his motives and psychology less important than his destination, his recitation of Bureau history as mechanical as the recitation of verse, dutifully committed to memory; at long last, the ritual comes to replace the spirit. Black’s script, in the wrong hands, could have come under fire for confusing Hoover’s twisted mind with his homosexuality or his problems with Mother. Eastwood doesn’t seem to give a fuck, and only opts for one overt visual match, depicting as mirror images Hoover’s lifeless corpse and the remains of the Lindbergh baby.