1) J. Edgar has so many correspondences with The Social Network, I couldn't help but wonder if Eastwood was emulating David Fincher. With Hammer appearing often as Hoover's trusted pseudo-love interest/right-hand man, I kept thinking that he's got one of the Winklevii brothers to add class to his Citizen Kane-esque tale of power and corruption. Aaron Sorkin's narrative tendency to skip back and forth in time worked well in The Social Network. The 2010 film's brew of billion-dollar lawsuits, Harvard undergraduate social climbing, and Zuckerberg's computer geek near-autistic detachment formed a compelling mix, in part because so much money was at stake even before you knew exactly how Zuckerberg earned it. In J. Edgar, a geeky but well-dressed career bureaucrat faces congressional criticism, multiple presidents trying to undermine his power, and a lifelong blocked urge to wear a dress. The future does not hang over the early years as dramatically. In The Social Network, no one ages all that much (the real Zuckerberg is still astonishingly only 27 years old), so no one has to focus on their makeup. Whereas Sorkin's screenplay uses the time shifting technique to disorient the viewer with its whip smart switchbacks, in J. Edgar writer Dustin Lance Black (of Milk) uses the same device to obfuscate and complicate an otherwise straightforward story.
2) J. Edgar begins with a shot of Hoover in his corpulent old age, a narrative maneuver that instantly made the movie less plausible. I couldn't suspend my disbelief that I was looking at actual old people given the familiarity of the movie stars in question. When the film jumps back and forth in time, having J. Edgar suddenly rejuvenated by 30 years with his second-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) in the midst of an elevator ride quickly juxtaposed with their youthful lovers' quarrel, the shifting only highlights the problems of believability. We also see them soon afterward in advanced age as they watch the horse races (leaving the viewer saying "Man, how they've grown old together").
As much as anything, the film is a study in aging, but I could never believe in the transformation--Tolson nodding and looking enfeebled after a stroke, DiCaprio bent over and looking glum with his horned-rim glasses. As Hoover cracks open a soft-boiled egg with a fork, Armie Hammer looks disarmingly like David Bowie's aged-a-hundred-years-in-a-day vampire John in The Hunger (1983).
3) J. Edgar also has many correspondences to Citizen Kane (1941), another movie with a chopped-up timeline. (Jay Rober Nash's 1972 biography was entitled Citizen Hoover.) What do Kane and Hoover have in common? Both films feature ambivalent figures highly interested in controlling their public image. They both follow their rise to fame with late grumpy ironic corruption, but whereas Kane remains fundamentally inscrutable, Eastwood's Hoover keeps giving away his secrets (I found I preferred the mysterious and fragmented picture I had of the real-life Hoover to the explained one on the screen). So, [spoiler alert] after a lovers' spat with Tolson, Hoover says "I love you" under his breath (such cruel irony--Tolson doesn't hear him). Hoover didn't like to dance with women, so his domineering Ma Annie (Judi Dench), teaches him how in her bedroom. Annie's relationship with J. reminded me of Hitchcock's weirdness around his mother as he reported to her bedside with much Catholic guilt whenever he transgressed. Still, Kane retains a little potency and mystery as he walks past his hall of mirrors in Xanadu. Hoover rants against Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. He also falls and weeps on the bedroom floor after putting on his mother's dress and pearls. It seems typical of Eastwood's and Black's methods to enhance that latter scene with anguished melodrama. Why couldn't they allow Hoover to enjoy his transvestism?
4) For decades, Hoover never changed his methods for holding on to power all that much. He is always the career-opportunist, finding ways to enhance his pet project, the FBI, with careful public relations marketing strategies (G-men promotion on Post Toasties cereal boxes) and proper fashion choices (tailored suits, 1950s tapered haircuts, no mustaches). In his superficial way, Hoover is nothing if not detail-oriented and efficient, but even with all of the self-loathing sexual repression going on, efficiency is rather dull to watch. Orson Welles masked some of the conventionalities of his story of one man's rise to world prominence with his charisma as an actor and his idiosyncratic film technique that, as Scorsese points out, calls the viewer's attention to the director's decisions behind the camera. In comparison, Eastwood's direction of J. Edgar is efficient but not as flashy.
5) At one point, Hoover claps a little too long after the Lindbergh baby kidnapper Richard Bruno Hauptmann was sentenced to death. Did Eastwood intend to draw a correlation between Hoover's carefully staged prosecution and Kane's attempt to use his propagandistic power to force the public to accept his second wife's Susan Alexander's opera career?
6) In the end, all of J. Edgar's allusions to The Social Network and Citizen Kane mostly betray how the later film would like to join the pantheon. In the process of having examined his career closely, J. Edgar ends up depicting a reduced figure henpecked by his own need to maintain appearances, hold on to power, and deny his affections. His mass of repressive symptoms are certainly dramatic, but I still prefer Billy Crudup's much briefer and more evocative version of Hoover in Public Enemies (2009).
7) Ultimately, the chief drawback of J. Edgar consists of the man himself. As the movie shifts back to the 1930s, Eastwood makes a point of showing reaction shots of audiences smirking and preferring gangster film heroes like James Cagney in Public Enemy to Hoover's public relations efforts to glorify the FBI. After watching 137 minutes of J. Edgar Hoover's fussy inadequacies, I can sympathize with the moviegoers.