Gods Among Men
By Carl Kozlowski
There are some figures in history that rise to the level of gods among men, and in American history, J. Edgar Hoover was one of them. Rising to the top of the powerful Federal Bureau of Investigations by the age of 27, Hoover was a fiercely devoted patriot who would do anything to stamp out homegrown radicals and opponents of the American way of life—a determination that wound up driving him to crush some of the very liberties he sought to uphold.
And yet, for all his colossal power as the nation’s top lawman for decades, Hoover remained fiercely inscrutable in his private life, as speculation ran rampant over whether this most macho of men secretly had a fetish for wearing women’s dresses and secretly maintained a homosexual relationship with one of his agents. That mix of the public and private sides of his dark persona should provide compelling fodder for an epic biographical film. However, in the new film J. Edgar, the director-star team of Clint Eastwood and Leonardo DiCaprio leave too much in the dark.
DiCaprio plays Hoover from age 24 to well into his 70s, and the movie opens on the stunning sight of him in old-age makeup, as he prepares to dictate his memoirs to a younger agent. Standing outside his office is his almost insanely devoted secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), who declares her undying loyalty to him on the same outing that she informs him she has no interest in marriage, but only in having a career.
With Gandy at his side, Hoover is seen taking over the FBI and molding the agents into his narrow image of perfection, before waging one war after another against not only radicals but Martin Luther King Jr. and President John F. Kennedy. Along the way, his private life remains so repressed that he admits early on to having no true friends and we are never fully clear how far the deep friendship he develops later with an agent named Tolson—who lives with him as his roommate for life—goes, and why Gandy is so slavishly devoted without any emotional reward either. In fact, the film implies that Hoover never had a sexual relationship of any kind in his life.
Some might debate whether this really matters in the wake of the dramatic impact Hoover had on American society as a whole, but the film’s portrayal of him as a single-minded and utterly repressed man seems to offer the only emotional insight to the anger that compelled him to stamp out those he saw as the nation’s enemies. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black, in his follow-up to his Oscar-winning debut screenplay Milk, pulls a near-total reversal here in his depiction of Hoover—where legendary gay martyr Harvey Milk exuded joy and confidence in his every step, Hoover tightens the reins on his life and emotions from start to pathetic finish.
Director Clint Eastwood draws a terrific performance out of DiCaprio, who will certainly stand as a leading Oscar contender next spring. And while the other performances are similarly strong and the attention to period details exceptional, the overarching melancholy that pervades the film ultimately drags it down to a soggy bore in the same way that Hoover’s fear and sadness dragged down his very spirit.
An entirely different class of immortal beings take center stage in the weekend’s other big release, Immortals, which serves as an unofficial spinoff of the 2009 smash hit 300. Just as 300 deployed an unprecedented and stunning use of green-screen technology to create lavishly dark worlds for its ancient soldiers to battle within, Immortals has an incredible visual sheen directed by Tarsem Singh, who is regarded as one of the greatest visionaries in advertising and music-video history yet rarely takes the helm of a feature film.
Starring British actor Henry Cavill (whose next role is as Superman in next year’s Man of Steel reboot) as mortal human warrior Theseus, and Mickey Rourke in full scenery-chewing mode as the villainous King Hyperion, Immortals emphasizes the eye candy of spectacular battle sequences and sweeping faux locales over consistent dialogue and even occasional lapses in story logic. But as Theseus and the King engage in opposing quests for a magical bow and arrow that can win any battle for good or evil, depending on who possesses it, the film mostly provides enough fun macho swagger and impressive action to give viewers a lively time at the movies.
Especially fun are the usually repellent Stephen Dorff as Theseus’ main sidekick—a role that could potentially reinvent Dorff’s career by making him genuine leading man material—and a rousing pre-war speech by Cavill that should give viewers goose pimples while transcending the occasional flaws in the rest of the script.
It may not be a movie that stands the test of time, like Spartacus, but Immortals is certainly fun enough to merit action lovers devoting a few hours to it at the movies.