There are important discoveries to be made when you see J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s new film about the progenitor of the FBI. I’m not referring to the movie’s wild speculations about Hoover’s supposed homosexuality, of which there is not a shred of proof—but the bald assertion of which allows director Eastwood and screenwriter Duncan Lance Black to feature a torrid kiss between Hoover and his longtime aide Clyde Tolson. Nor am I referring to the scene in which Hoover, the subject of a rumor long since discredited about his being a cross-dresser, weeps as he puts on his dead mother’s dress—an overwrought cinematic moment for the ages that ought to have been accompanied by heckling commentary from the robot cutouts who resided at the bottom of the screen while awful movies were being played on the hilarious old cable-TV show Mystery Science Theater 3000.
No, I am referring to the fact that we now know from the makeup work done on its pretty-boy star that when Leonardo DiCaprio gets old, he will look exactly like Jon Voight. This comes as troubling news. Do we really need two Jon Voights? Isn’t one Jon Voight enough? Voight moved very much to the right in his later years, a startling transformation for a man who won an Oscar playing Jane Fonda’s fantasy of a disabled antiwar Vietnam vet in Coming Home. It was Voight, David Mamet told me, who gave him Whittaker Chambers’s Witness and advised Mamet that reading the book would completely alter his understanding of the world. Does this mean that three decades from now Leonardo DiCaprio will present a copy of Jonah Goldberg’s Liberal Fascism to the director of his latest hologram?
We cannot be sure. What we can be sure of is this: If you make the mistake of going to see J. Edgar, you will emerge much older by the time the movie finishes, even though only two hours will have passed. Forget all that questionable talk about how those newly tested subatomic particles move so quickly that they violate the rules of time and can order a drink before they walk into the bar. It is Clint Eastwood, Hollywood’s only functioning octogenarian director, and not a subatomic particle, who has figured out a way to breach Einstein’s relativity theory. In the theaters in which his movies play, time literally slows down to the speed of an ant. I was so ancient by the time J. Edgar was done that I went home and watched five reruns of Law and Order.
J. Edgar is one of those would-be epics that attempt to convey the sweep of history and yet bring us into intimate company with those who made history. The sweep of history is provided by some very nice sets (an unrenovated Library of Congress) and some beautifully rendered special effects. If you would like a better sense of what Washington looked like in 1919 than you can get by looking at the website Shorpy.com, which features many photographs from the period, this is the movie for you.
But as for providing us with an intimate look at the powerful, J. Edgar is a solemn, pointless, humorless dud. Its goal is to have us draw a connection between Hoover’s hunger for power and his repression of his own true gay nature. But DiCaprio’s Hoover doesn’t seem particularly powerful or important; he’s just a humorless, pedantic guy with a secretary and some files. The Hoover of J. Edgar is such a confused, lost bumbler he couldn’t manage his way out of an envelope. But the real J. Edgar Hoover was a peerless manipulator and PR man who understood mass media and how to turn his own small operation within the Department of Justice into the most popular and respected domestic agency ever created by Washington.
Eastwood and Black, like all Hollywood observers of Washington, don’t seem to understand that people crave power in large measure because having power is fun—because they get to do what they want when they want and lord it over others and get good tables in the best restaurants and have people kiss their rings and have the times of their lives. I doubt very much that J. Edgar Hoover was as miserable as this movie makes it appear he was; how could he have been, when he was a figure of such adulation?
And as for Hoover’s supposed wants and needs and desires and all that: Look, sometimes, people just aren’t that interested in sex. Yes, I said it. Somebody hand Clint Eastwood some smelling salts. I think he just fainted.
John Podhoretz, editor of Commentary, is The Weekly Standard’s movie critic.