The list of Hollywood biopics is long. Very long. They’ll make a movie about pretty much anyone of any kind of notoriety. Most of the time, they’re pretty great. Giving us either a checklist of historical events or showing us some back-stories we may be unfamiliar with. That is, shedding light on a subject that hasn’t been given as much attention. When it comes to adapting a big production based around the life of one of America’s most influential and public faces, you better come up with something more than we may think we already know. And so is, sort of, the case with Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar.
Writer Dustin Lance Black is no stranger to the subject of biopics. He may have given us the Oscar winning screenplay for Milk, but he also wrote the screenplay for Pedro. This was the film about the first HIV-positive homosexual reality TV star from MTV’s The Real World: San Francisco. I’m sure most people have never heard of Pedro, but Milk happened to be nominated for Best Picture at the 2009 Academy Awards and I’m certain that Black, along with Eastwood, have their sights set on a similar projection. Given the fact they have Leonardo DiCaprio starring as the titular character looks to only be further trying to seal the deal.
A fellow critic told me that J. Edgar featured a “Wikipedia screenplay.” And it’s pretty true. But in the case of the performances, that’s where the film truly shines. It starts with Hoover meeting with a writer (Robert Irwin) to tell his life story in his own words — with events ranging from his earliest job in Mitchell Palmer’s (Geoff Pierson) office to his dead-end attempts to woo Helen Grandy (Naomi Watts). It mostly plays out like an interweaving of skits based on true events. We also get the founding of the Bureau of Investigation, where his forensic science is shunned for its “extreme” nature such as employing wood specialist Arthur Koehler (Stephen Root), along with the transition of gangster films to the G-men heroes of the silver screen after the arrest of “Machine Gun” Kelly, and of course the Lindbergh (Josh Lucas) baby gets its due.
The largest amount of screentime happens to be split between the two biggest relationships in Hoover’s life: his mother Annie (Judi Dench) and Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer). At first you may be wondering why a man who leads the nation’s FBI still lives at home with his mother, but it makes sense when you take into account how much time he also spends at work and socially with Tolson. Yes, Eastwood and Black make no attempts to hide Hoover’s homosexuality and there’s even one scene with a pretty monumental kiss between the two. However, some of this plays a little too much like Psycho-lite and comes across almost as unintentionally funny. Thankfully we have the scenes being handled with the utmost care by DiCaprio, Hammer, and Dench.