J. Edgar, the biopic of legendary F.B.I. head J. Edgar Hoover (which opens today in selected cities and nationwide on Friday), focuses on Hoover’s long-rumored homosexuality – even if most of the film’s ads do not.
Written by Oscar-winning MILK screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, directed by Clint Eastwood, and starring Leonardo DiCaprio and The Social Network’s Armie Hammer, the film boasts an A-List Hollywood pedigree.
As a big-budget mainstream film that deals with the gay life of a major public figure, its release has also been hotly anticipated by film fans and media watchers in the LGBT community.
While Black’s screenplay captures the multi-faceted sides of Hoover: driven, paranoid, lonely, frightened, ruthless and visionary, Eastwood’s telling of the tale is safe and traditional: watered down where it should be risky, conventional where it should be audacious.
It feels as if Warner Bros. execs were thinking, “This is our big shot at more Oscars, let’s make sure the guy seems likable too. And let’s not advertise that gay thing.” Yet Hoover’s life and personality scream out for a balls-to-the-wall Greek tragic hero treatment.
This apparent pressure to make Hoover all things to all people hamstrings DiCaprio, who shines in individual moments, playing Hoover from his 20s to 70s. One might argue that the film’s flashback-heavy, non-linear structure works against us getting a clear evolution of the man in total.
As Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s colleague, confidante and (as the film suggests) lifetime lover, Armie Hammer sparkles most brightly, nailing the character’s sexually ambiguous charm.
Judi Dench does her trademark battleax turn as Hoover’s domineering mother, but as Hoover’s longtime secretary, the usually vibrant Naomi Watts is reduced to what amounts to the most major walk-on role in film history.
As a mainstream Hollywood film, J. Edgar does deserve credit for exploring the dark side of denying one’s sexuality. Yet one still wishes that it had more of the courage of its convictions.
For more on J. Edgar go here.