The biopic of anybody of any importance will run the danger of controversy. Those that aren’t controversial probably don’t deserve the label of biography. What man or woman has shaped the course of history with conflicts that only resolved themselves in a way that reflects well upon the individual? There isn’t one, obviously. But you’re making a movie, you’ve got to make the decision–what is the movie about? The person, the moment, a part of their drama? It’s a difficult decision that will stratify the audience.
There are three types of movies that could claim to be Biopics. Examples are (1) the Blair trilogy (The Deal (2003), The Queen (2006), and The Special Relationship (2010)), (2) Wilde (1997), and (3) J. Edgar (2011).
The Blair trilogy gave us three moments in the life of Tony Blair, but they are political events and only describe Blair as a public man. This is the most comfortable kind of film to make because the facts are out there and numerous individuals are aware of them. People may quibble about what’s taken out or left in or emphasized, but things don’t get too close to cause offense. Thirteen Days (2000) would be another good example. It isn’t really about JFK, but JFK and the moment.
Wilde runs the other direction in being about the man and his personal life to the virtual exclusion of his public life. In one sense this makes it the most biographical of them all in that it is personal. But I found that movie lacking in the extreme. I wanted to know about the life of Wilde, not the emotional trauma of Bosie and Wilde. In fact, I highly recommend a post hoc renaming of the film to be Bosie and Wilde because I find it misleadingly final to call it Wilde.
J. Edgar is the combination of the two. It is the epic of biographies. It takes the man and the moment, the personal and the public. Nixon (1995) is another good example. You can make a personality movie about an artist, but making it about a public figure (and a controversial one at that) requires a great deal of balance and caution. J. Edgar seriously abandons caution at times in describing the personal life of J. Edgar Hoover. This is the kind of movie I expected of (and wanted from) Wilde.
J. Edgar, directed by Clint Eastwood, follows the life of J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) in the form of flashbacks. They’re writing the history of the FBI and Hoover is dictating to Agent Smith (Ed Westwick) of the PR department. The movie goes over the increasing paranoia, the increasing use of personal information to stay in power, and the more colorful aspects of his rumored personal life with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). There’s also longtime secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).
The performances in the film are strong. I can’t say with any certainty that they were accurate representations, but as pure technique, there’s not much to quibble with. Well, that’s not entirely true. When things get personal, they wander dangerously into melodrama, but other than that, it’s fine. Talent isn’t the problem.
Storytelling is the problem. The man had a long and complicated life, so creating some semblance of order through the flashbacks is clearly an attractive option. Even then, order was not maintained and time was wasted.
What was interesting was that the movie was so cautious about his official conduct and portrayed him as an essentially misunderstood patriot and yet was so incautious about his sexuality. Even the cross-dressing is represented as grief over his mother’s death rather than a life-style. That was probably a mistake. I think you can either ignore the rumor or make it larger, but to convert it into some independent interpretation is a serious liberty.
I’d also add that the make-up was pretty bad for Armie Hammer. They aged him in a way that made him almost unrecognizable. It was a distraction.
The movie isn’t nearly as bad as I was given to understand. I expected it to be like Wilde and all about his ticks, paranoia, mommy issues, and sexual preference and was happy to find it split focus between those things and the rise of the FBI. While it was highly imperfect (using the flashbacks and spending so long with an elderly Hoover), it was perfectly watchable.
Eastwood and the writer, Dustin Lance Black, would have done well to have paid close attention to The Good Shepherd (2006) as a model. That movie was 30 minutes longer but provided such a well-paced and well balanced portrayal of the CIA and James Angleton. That movie wasn’t a great hit, but will stand the test of time much better than J. Edgar will.
I expect that this will be only the first J. Edgar Hoover biopic.