J. Edgar will fall short of offering anything beyond the same speculative picture of Hoover that has dominated public opinion for nearly half a century.
J. Edgar Hoover’s journey from lowly field agent to director of the FBI has the potential to be one of the most compelling historical dramas of the last century. Hoover not only revolutionized how the U.S. investigates crime – his reputation for digging up dirt on some of the country’s most powerful politicians helped create a larger-than-life persona that has, despite plenty of rumors and controversy, endured to this day.
So, does Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort, J. Edgar - with a performance from Leonardo DiCaprio as the controversial titular figure – successfully capture all sides of the brilliant, at times bizarre Hoover – or is the film, much like Hoover’s own retelling of his life, no more than a series of provocative stories that hold little actual meaning?
Unfortunately, despite a strong performance from DiCaprio and some genuinely interesting source material, Eastwood’s J. Edgar Hoover film has a number of problems that are difficult to overlook. At times the film bites off more than it can chew, resulting in a lot of time-jumps that make it difficult to follow the narrative throughline.
J. Edgar takes a lot of detours over its 137 minute runtime – making it hard for the movie to build any kind of momentum or tension. While the proceedings attempt to follow a fifty-year chronology (despite a tremendous amount of jump cuts to various time periods), the film puts so much space between certain elements that it’s hard to enjoy the evolution of the characters, or the overarching development of the FBI – resulting in a film with very little focus, which attempts to juggle too many ideas over the course of too many years.
The film casts a wide net – covering everything from the FBI director’s rise through the ranks; the “The Crime of the Century” (the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby); the suffocating dynamic between Hoover (DiCaprio) and his mother (played by Judi Dench); as well as the complicated relationship with his friend (and alleged lover), Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Despite spending a lot of time on the overarching influence of Hoover’s relationship with his mother, J. Edgar doesn’t cover much of the agent’s life before his admission to the bureau. As a result, the story closely follows the development of the FBI as well as well as Hoover’s telling of his own life experiences to a series of FBI field agents – who, the film asserts, ghostwrote his various published works.
While the behind-the-scenes look at the FBI is certainly interesting, in a number of cases the film seems to relish in haphazardly airing the dirty laundry of a number of characters, besides Hoover. (For example, there is allusion to Elenor Roosevelt’s alleged lesbian relationship with Lorena Hickok.) As a result, despite a lot interesting insight into Hoover’s shrewd maneuvering in the political world, it’s hard to overlook that some aspects of the film comes across, at times, as little more than an excuse to unearth secrets of American history – without making the effort to deliver a lot of profound insight.
As mentioned, most of DiCaprio’s scenes as Hoover are convincing and manage to offer a compelling portrayal of the man without having to resort to historical caricature. As usual, the actor nails the intricacies of his role – down to elocution and physical mannerisms. That said, there are a number of scenes that push the DiCaprio’s performance to a breaking point, no matter how compelling, as Eastwood’s direction and some melodramatic scriptwork undercuts potential resonance or impact. The onscreen relationship between Hoover and Tolson is especially awkward – and a number of moments that were intended to be profound fall entirely flat.
Unfortunately, it’s hard to blame anyone but Eastwood for the film’s shortcomings – as the supporting cast also offers a number of compelling performances. While the complicated relationship between Hoover and Tolson doesn’t have the intended impact, Armie Hammer presents a solid performance – and is responsible for bringing a bit of warmth to offset J. Edgar’s obsessive and harsh personality. Similarly, Naomi Watts manages to find a balance between the day-to-day strain of Hoover’s career secretary, Helen Gandy, as well as a fervent loyalty that enabled her to work with Edgar for nearly fifty years. Unsurprisingly, Judi Dench is also a standout – providing a nuanced performance which illustrates the high-pressure home life that crippled Hoover emotionally, and made it difficult for him to focus on anything but his work.
There are also a number of minor technical problems that further undermine the strength of the film – including plastic-looking aging make-up (specially with regard to Tolson), as well as depictions of iconic politicians, which are distracting and poorly realized. These “minor” details wouldn’t be such a problem if the film didn’t try so hard to “feel” authentic – exemplified by Eastwood’s choice to shoot the entire project with a dark and grainy film palette.
While J. Edgar manages to provide an intriguing look at one of the country’s most fascinating icons, a peek into the evolution of the FBI, and delivers a number of standout performances, Eastwood ultimately fails to provide a cohesive narrative or compelling insight into his subject. Despite the film’s problems, some moviegoers will no doubt enjoy watching familiar events play out onscreen; for others, however, J. Edgar will fall short of offering anything beyond the same speculative picture of Hoover that has dominated public opinion for nearly half a century.
If you’re still on the fence about J. Edgar, check out the trailer below:
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J. Edgar is now in theaters.