Despite DiCaprio's bark, this muddled melodrama adds up to a missed opportunity.
J Edgar Hoover was no hero. The founding Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation may have been the original G-Man, but he was also a manipulative, power-hungry, paranoid bully who maintained his pre-eminence by smearing enemies and abusing his position.
In Clint Eastwood’s new film, Leonardo DiCaprio is tasked with bringing this deeply unpleasant man to life. Unfortunately, Dustin Black’s script is more intent on rehabilitating him than rehearsing his darkest moments.
J. Edgar follows Hoover’s life from early adulthood to death, and charts the uneasy beginnings of the FBI along the way. First encountered as a bullet-headed Justice Department bureaucrat fixated on his mummy (Judi Dench), Hoover quickly rises to become director of the fledgling Bureau of Investigation, assisted by his loyal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts).
While Hoover’s G-Men heap fame upon the department by rounding up crooks like John Dillinger, the man himself forms a close friendship with his assistant director Clyde Tolson (a toothsome Armie Hammer). As Hoover’s power increases, so does his paranoia. All the while, his working relationship with Tolson threatens to turn into something else completely.
There’s a lot of material here, and Black’s script skips back and forth through it with irritatingly haphazard abandon.The film begins by alternating between the elderly Hoover dictating his life story to a young administrator in the early 1960s (with flashbacks of his ascent up the ladder), and his burgeoning relationship with Tolson.
But eventually the ’60s scenes begin to take over, as Hoover wrangles with Attorney General Robert Kennedy and plots to destroy noted ‘subversive’ Martin Luther King, Jr – all while wearing some truly terrible old-man make-up. It all becomes too much to take in.
Eastwood is so obsessed with doling out expository points of history – from the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby to the assassination of JFK – that he ends up crowding out his characters. We barely learn anything about Tolson, for example, or grasp why he is so attracted to his boss.
It’s never clear why Gandy shows such unwavering loyalty to Hoover. And Hoover’s mother is a mass of Oedipal clichés, defined by an eye-rolling moment when she teaches her adult son to dance. All this might not have mattered so much if the film were more pleasant to look at, but Eastwood’s dull palette of blues, greys and browns adds little spark to the bureaucratic scenes that make up most of the film’s runtime.
And what about Hoover himself? DiCaprio captures his irascible manner with a militaristic bark, but the film is more interested in eliciting sympathy for the closeted man behind the mask than showing us the true monster Hoover might have been. All too often, Black’s script sinks into sickly melodrama when dealing with Hoover’s relationship with Tolson.
It’s only at the very end, when we see another perspective on his rise to prominence, that we begin to understand the depths of his egomania. By then, unfortunately, we’re way past caring.
A biopic of this iconic twentieth-century figure is just the job for Clint.
Lovely period furnishings, but drier than a Prohibition wedding.
This muddled melodrama adds up to a missed opportunity.