J. Edgar Hoover, the controversial founding director of the FBI, is an exciting prospect for dramatisation. A highly mysterious and controversial figure, he held an iron-grip on his position of power through the turbulence of Twentieth Century America, all the while masking his potentially damning personal life. These kinds of figures have made for some wonderful biopics in the past, which is all more the pity that ‘J. Edgar’, Clint Eastwood’s film of the man, is far from being one of them.
Chopping and changing within the period from the 20’s to the 60’s, the film explores how Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) came to carve his place in history, and the great changes he made to law enforcement and investigative techniques in the United States. Firmly at his side are his personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). His relationship with Tolson begins to build into something altogether unexpected and unacceptable, and Hoover has to balance between his ambition and his heart.
On paper, ‘J. Edgar’ seems to have everything in place - an Oscar-winning director, an Oscar-winning screenwriter (Duncan Lance Black) and an astounding cast. In execution, however, the film is something of a mess. I have never been a fan of Clint Eastwood as a director, and this film suffers from all the same issues I have had with him in the past. The pace of the film is laborious and plodding, the camera work uninteresting and the editing almost completely without flair. With a central figure as interesting as Hoover, you would expect a thrilling journey through some of the most important events of recent history, but most are skimmed over, and those that are discussed are almost pantomime. The film is annoyingly episodic, with segments almost haphazardly wedged together with little logic.
What makes matters worse is that the ingredients are all there. For all its shortcomings, Black’s screenplay is fairly solid, and in the hands of a more adventurous director, could have offered some exciting possibilities. There are even moments of wit and humour evident in the writing that Eastwood either ignores or fails to even notice. In some respects, there are two very different generations of storytellers at work between the director and screenwriter, and the balance is never reconciled.
The performances across the board are also very good, especially from DiCaprio, who approaches Hoover with the same gravitas and intelligence he has so wonderfully demonstrated in recent years. Naomi Watts is great, as is Judi Dench as his harridan mother Anna Marie Hoover. Armie Hammer adds some much-needed light as a younger Tolson, but his work as the older man is, unfortunately, not as effective, not helped by the shoddy old age make-up he is made to wear.
In some respects, ‘J. Edgar’ suffers from almost no clarity in its intentions. For such a controversial figure, there is very little criticism or questioning of his actions, but not enough of a positive image to make him a hero. Eastwood seems unclear in what he wants to say by telling this story, and there is definitely a possible comment somewhere in Black’s screenplay. The closest Eastwood seems to get to an intention is painting the film as a romance between Hoover and Tolson, but his directorial hand is too clumsy to render the moments of intimacy effective, relying on the surprising chemistry between DiCaprio and Hammer. Even more damaging is his truly appalling score, rendering some moments more akin to ‘Days of Our Lives’ than serious historical drama.
In the end, all that can be said about ‘J. Edgar’ is that it is a terribly missed opportunity. As the credits roll, nothing concrete or even important has been said about Hoover, and what we have is a dull, lifeless and stolid representation of a life that should be more interesting than what has been presented. There are a few moments of light (the details of one of Hoover’s most famous cases, the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh's baby son, are enough to make an arresting film in themselves), and the performance of DiCaprio is worth commending - but once again, Clint Eastwood has been handed a fascinating piece of source material and done very little with it. Hopefully one day, someone will make a film deserving of such an immense and fascinating man. He certainly isn’t deserving of one as dull as this.