Directed by Clint Eastwood
J. Edgar Hoover is one of the most interesting and fascinating figures in American history, the man who formed the FBI and pioneered many of the modern tactics taken for granted in today’s American criminal justice system while simultaneously harassing activists and keeping files of sensitive information on political figures as prominent as President John F. Kennedy as a means of ensuring patriotic purity in Washington and securing his own job security. His story has become even more fascinating in the years since his death as rumors about his homosexuality and cross dressing habits have surfaced. A man with such an interesting life filled with so much uncertainty and innuendo is a natural subject for a film biopic, but Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, although an admirable effort, fails to match up to the fascination surrounding the real man. Leonardo DiCaprio does a splendid job portraying Hoover, capturing his unique style of speech and effectively humanizing a figure who is often known only through caricature or broad-stroke depictions. DiCaprio’s version of Hoover remains staunchly confident in his actions as FBI director, even when those actions stray into extralegal territory, never once questioning his own moral standing or sense of patriotism. His vulnerabilities show themselves elsewhere, mainly in his relationships with his mother (Judi Dench) and with his his right-hand man/lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). These vulnerabilities are where the story mostly falters. The relationship depicted between Hoover and his mother feels entirely like biopic cliche - the son’s personality and identity largely defined by his lifelong quest to be successful in the eyes of his domineering mother - and seems fairly unnecessary. Even if his mother was as domineering as the movie suggests she was, the film uses her to explain his driven, career-focused personality and his decision to hide and fight against his homosexuality, both of which don’t need the matriarchal explanation (in fact, Hoover’s career-centric personality itself explains why he wouldn’t reveal his sexuality and risk losing his government position). As for his relationship with Tolson, the problem is that the film is too explicit in saying that Hoover was homosexual, an issue that is still highly debated by historians. The relationship could have been more interesting if the film had remained ambiguous, showing how it could have been a romantic relationship or how it could have merely been a very close platonic relationship. Because the film firmly settles with the romantic relationship, it too falls into biopic cliche, ensuring the film gets the overdramatic climactic scene of a screaming, room-destroying argument that biopics love so much. There’s nothing particularly offensive about either of these plotlines; they simply speak to the greater problem, that the film itself feels unexceptional. This is a shame, because the story of the man they’re dealing with is exceptional, and covers many exceptional moments in American history - the Palmer Raids, the fight against Prohibition-era organized crime, the Lindbergh baby case, Hoover’s tense relationship with the Kennedys - that don’t feel particularly exceptional here. The film is a well-crafted one, but Eastwood can never manage to make the story take off the way it should. There is one other major issue: the makeup, which isn’t entirely convincing in aging DiCaprio, Hammer, or Naomi Watts as Hoover’s longtime personal secretary. No matter how much stuff they cake on their faces, their eyes still look young. Perhaps the problem is that the makeup people were too concerned with making sure their stars were still recognizable even in full makeup. Whatever the reasoning, it doesn’t work. J. Edgar has enough acting talent and visual flair (at times even noirish in appearance) to be watchable, but its appeal goes little further than that.
Three out of five suns