Review: J. Edgar (2011)

Director: Clint Eastwood

***

J. Edgar Hoover: lawman, paranoid, cross-dresser, legend. Despite being dead for 40 years, there is an enigma about the man that many still find irresistible. He was no recluse, but so many details about his life were (and still are) shrouded in mystery. Hoover knew the secrets of the most powerful people in the United States, but the ones he kept most guarded were his own. Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a noble attempt to separate some of the facts from the fiction; it succeeds in some areas and fails in others, but then shedding light on the mysterious has never been the easiest of tasks.

To suggest that J. Edgar is not an altogether successful venture should not be a surprise to anyone who knows even the slightest bit about Hoover. His was a long and complex life, and one that was inescapably intertwined with the formation and consolidation of the organization that gave him so much purpose and pride: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. As a guide to the foundation and early days of the FBI, J. Edgar excels. The young Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) watches as Chicago is firebombed by Communist subversives in 1919, and is determined from that point to dedicate himself to the protection of the USA and her citizens. His boy scout-like demeanour is steadfast in the extreme, and his determination for prosecution and protection sees the FBI grow from strength to strength, culminating in its success in catching Bruno Hauptmann (Damon Herriman), the man who kidnapped and killed Charles Lindbergh’s (Josh Lucas) infant son, through the use of the latest scientific techniques. With the help of his loyal assistant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and foregoing expense, Hoover nurtures the fledgling bureau in a fascinating opening half. However, is it more fascinating than the man who led it? Hoover influenced every aspect of the FBI’s development, but who or what influenced him?

DiCaprio is near-perfect as Hoover, capturing the soul of a truly tortured man. His excellent performance is all the more remarkable when you consider all the elements working against him. For starters, the script (by Milk scribe Dustin Lance Black) jumps back and forth between Hoover in 1972 as he dictates his memoirs and points in his past in no discernible order. Though not entirely confusing, the choppy chronology can’t help but feel a little unnecessary. What’s more problematic is the depiction of Hoover’s personal life. His alleged homosexuality and closeness to his deputy Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer) is treated with such reserve as to be practically chaste. No-one expected Eastwood to deal with it in an explicit way, but his direction and Black’s toothless dialogue reduce it to a soap storyline. Meanwhile, the relationship between Hoover and his mother (the ever-wonderful Judi Dench) is all dominance and no subtlety. Basically, Hoover liked men and had Mommy issues. If that reduction sounds trite, it’s about as much detail as we get here. We learn little about Tolson or Gandy, and both Hammer and Watts have to work behind some horrific old-age make-up in the 1970s-set scenes (DiCaprio’s is passable). Eastwood’s direction is epic in scope but is technically grating; his lighting scheme is too dark and his piano-tinkling scores all sound the same at this point. Between all this and some poor CGI, J. Edgar threatens to come apart at the home stretch. Thank goodness DiCaprio is there to give the film a grounding.

J. Edgar does try to do something different with the idea of the reverent biopic, but the gamble is barely worth the risk. Still, DiCaprio is worth the price of your ticket and, unlike The Iron Lady, the script does have enough meat on its bones to bring you through the flaws. If nothing else, J. Edgar is a vast improvement on Eastwood’s previous effort Hereafter. While J. Edgar is an interesting history lesson, it’s not much more than that.

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