Being of a certain age, I grew up not knowing much about J. Edgar Hoover. By the time I came along, he had already become a pop culture cartoon, well known for his rumoured eccentricities. Knowing that Hoover was the architect of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation, however, I was interested to learn more about him through director Clint Eastwood’s new film J. Edgar. But while it is interesting, the film lacks depth, and understanding its subject still proves elusive.
The movie bounces back and forth between Hoover’s final weeks in the 1970s and his beginnings with the Bureau in the 20s. Hoover himself (Leonardo DiCaprio) narrates the earlier scenes, as he dictates his memoirs to a series of FBI agents helping him with the manuscript. He recalls his complicated relationship with his mother (Judi Dench), his meeting Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the woman who would become his trusted private secretary, and his appointment to head of the Bureau at the age of 29.
While a great deal of the story centers around the famous Lindbergh Baby kidnapping – which provided Hoover the excuse to begin adding forensic science to his investigations – the movie is largely episodic in nature. A significant portion of this involves the third major player in Hoover’s life, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his Number 2 at the Bureau. In real life, Hoover and Tolson were nearly inseparable, even visiting nightclubs and vacationing together, and rumours abounded that they were secret lovers.
To its credit, the script by Dustin Lance Black takes a stand on those rumours, along with the other sensational stories about Hoover – the mother fixation, the cross-dressing, the box behind his desk he stood on to seem taller, and so on. A lesser film might have tried to split the difference and keep us wondering, but here we get a story that assumes those details are true and suggests reasons for why they were. Controversial, to be sure, and at times it drives this biopic into the realm of historical fiction, but it’s at least entertaining.
It’s in the most important aspect, though, that Black’s script falls flat. What we do know about Hoover was that he was a force to be reckoned with. He ran the FBI for over 50 years, serving under eight Presidents. Paranoid, and obsessed with loyalty and image control, he kept secret files on both public figures and ordinary citizens. His longevity was secured by the fear he inspired in people. But there’s none of this in J. Edgar. Interacting with superiors such as Attorney General Robert Kennedy, or attempting to manipulate Martin Luther King, all we see is a frail old man, not a master power broker. Perhaps it’s true that Hoover was a shadow of his former self in his final days, but there is nothing even in the young Hoover that shows us how he was able to hold such power for so long. And Eastwood’s typical minimalist direction doesn’t help bring out the spark either.
That said, DiCaprio’s performance is very good, considering the limitations of the script, and he gives us a human and believable Hoover at both ages. The other actors are all excellent as well.
In the end, I suppose J. Edgar succeeds by making us want to know more about its subject, but it’s when we go looking for more elsewhere that we realize how much the film has let us down.
Tags: movie review