Hoover? Damn!

‘J. Edgar’ tries — and almost succeeds — at being ‘Brokeback’ for G-Men

G-MEN, X-RATED  |  Tolson (Armie Hammer) and Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) carry on in ‘J. Edgar.’

G-MEN, X-RATED | Tolson (Armie Hammer) and Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) carry on in ‘J. Edgar.’


3 out of 5 stars
Leo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench. Rated R. 145 mins.  Now playing in limited release.


Before he became the nation’s most famous lawmen (one who never carried a gun or made an arrest), J. Edgar Hoover’s greatest governmental accomplishment was organizing the system for card cataloging the Library of Congress, and in Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay for J. Edgar, that speaks volumes. Hoover thought of everything — books, people, information — as things to be categorized and managed. “Believe in the individual” Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) says near the end of the film, without a hint of realization that his entire career was a slow repudiation of that principle.

Hoover was, simply, a scary son of a bitch, a homegrown Torquemada clothed with the mantle of democracy.

That’s not something I’m sure J. Edgar fully captures. Hoover was an innovator of law enforcement: He believed in process, in the value of centralizing information like fingerprints, and of preserving evidence in situ.
But as with many well-intentioned people who rise to unbridled power, he abused it. Personal and political enemies were targeted, if not outright blackmailed; the constitution became more barrier than guideline. You can see how Hoover’s FBI laid the groundwork for the Bush Administration’s unironic use of “extraordinary rendition” as a euphemism for torture; the U.S. doesn’t torture as a precept, so anything we do in the name of safety must be proper.

J. Edgar gets off to a shaky start, but it grows on you. Our first sight of Hoover is of DiCaprio pinched into an overdone old-man latex mask that looks comical, like Lord Voldemort in a Brooks Bros. suit. The film is bookended by the sunset of Hoover’s life while recording his memoirs, and the start of his career, only until about 1935; that leaves a generation of villainy during the Cold War and Civil Rights Movement almost untouched by Black and director Clint Eastwood. Some things had to come out, of course; but the gap feels gaping.

None of this is to say Black’s screenplay doesn’t succeed on several levels. He portrays Hoover as a spiritual brother of Norman Bates: Emotionally arrested, mother-obsessed (a scene where he dressed in his dead mom’s clothes is singularly creepy) and expressing his frustrations in inappropriate ways.

He also presents us with one of the most perversely touching love stories of the year: The very public but very secret romance between Hoover and his aide, Clyde Tolson. Tolson, played with model-good-looks and a seductive, pantherish stealth by Armie Hammer, humanizes Hoover. He serves, often ineffectively, as the moral guidepost, the floating conscious of a notoriously paranoid influence peddler who saw criticism as subversiveness and liberalism as treasonous. Eastwood is best directing as he hints, for the better part of an hour, at the sexual energy between them. It’s on the personal level that J. Edgar becomes something more than a biopic — it becomes Brokeback Capital Hill, a romance among G-Men.

Hammer is the most compelling actor on the screen, followed closely by Judi Dench as the most unnerving mom since Angela Lansbury in The Manchurian Candidate. But Leo falls flat. He doesn’t convey Hoover’s demagoguery with enough vitriol; it’s like he’s afraid of coming off as the villain.

Ultimately, maybe it doesn’t matter. Hoover’s political legacy speaks for itself; we have J. Edgar to remind us of the sad tragedy of being in the closet, and how even in unlikely times, love finds a way.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition November 11, 2011.

—  Michael Stephens

Screen Review: Men in bleccch!

ANGELS IN AMERICA | An adjuster (John Slattery, left) tries to keep a politician (Matt Damon) on course with his fate in this silly but never quite ridiculously fun time-waster.

‘Adjustment Bureau’ portrays God as bureaucrat. That’s its best quality

ARNOLD WAYNE JONES  | Life+Style Editor

At the risk of being accused of picking nits, the first thing among the many that bothers me about The Adjustment Bureau is that a key plot point involves a former congressman and current Wall Street big-wig traveling through New York City by bus. Now, in a movie that deals with angels, fate and magic doors, the details of transportation may seem miniscule, but that’s the problem: If you want me to buy the big stuff, you have to convince me in the details. There’s a reason monkeys pick nits out of their fur: They are annoying.

So is, ultimately, The Adjustment Bureau. As a movie, it’s neither fish nor fowl: Does it want to be a chick flick, about how a romance between an ambitious politician (Matt Damon) and a free-spirited dancer (Emily Blunt) can overcome fate itself? Or is it a sci-fi action film with Matrix-like ambitions to reveal the One Big Secret: That what we think of as free will is actually an intense heavenly bureaucracy of angels wearing fedoras and God as a CEO who meddles in individual lives?

The script, based on a Phillip K. Dick story, is too gadabout for its own good. There are echoes of Men in Black, but not the humor. (The joke of MiB is that the agents look like clichés of spies; apparently, the best angels can do to disguise themselves in 2011 America is dress like 1950s G-Men, or extras who wondered off the set of Mad Men.)

This is a poor man’s Inception, and even though it makes marginally more sense, its style and its premises just don’t fly. Damon’s character wants to find Blunt’s but can’t — how could he possibly track her down? What, he’s never heard of Missed Connections on Craigslist? How about he goes on TV and mentions it — he is a damn national hero, after all. (If I worried about every profile on Grindr that fell off my radar, I’d never get any work done.) It’s also been done before, better, as the “City on the Edge of Forever” episode of the original Star Trek. Harlan Ellison should consider legal action.

Maybe if there was any romantic chemistry between Blunt and Damon it could work (there isn’t; a passionate kiss near the end looks like a painful prostate exam for both of them; Blunt seems far sexier when she’s dancing with the men of the Cedar Lake Ballet company, which gets the best P.R. since E.T. ate Reece’s Pieces). Or maybe we’d care if the climax didn’t hinge on weird rules, like Heaven having worse security safeguards than Los Alamos, water making angels ineffectual (on a planet covered three-fourths in oceans) and a sleepy operative allowing destiny to go off course. I’m not exaggerating at all. Perhaps if I were, it might actually entertain you, instead of drain you. If this is the destiny of movies, I say we all go off the map.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition March 4, 2011.

—  John Wright