DiCaprio’s performance helps bolster an uneven narrative that’s far too short for the story it wants to tell and far too long for the story that’s told.
It’s a little upsetting knowing that the man who would pioneer modern forensics and investigation procedures has become the subject of ridicule for actions not related to his field. Much like allegations of child molestation will forever haunt the legacy of Michael Jackson, J. Edgar Hoover will always be remembered by his dalliances with cross-dressing.
J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s thirty second film as director, is an overly ambitious look at one of the most iconic men of twentieth century. Sadly, the feature does not serve as the supreme biopic of a man who would wield unyielding power as the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. What we have is a film that is somewhat enjoyable but fails at allowing audiences to connect emotionally to the characters and their actions.
Instead of being a meaty expose on the tyrannical FBI head that would make six presidents subservient to his ways, Eastwood’s latest effort plays safe by being tasteful with regards to promiscuity and vague when it comes to homosexuality. This comes as a surprise since the film’s screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, also wrote the Oscar-winning Milk with Sean Penn starring as the flamboyant Harvey Milk. J. Edgar Hoover may have been a charismatic figure like Milk, but he was also a walking contradiction.
J. Edgar Hoover was by all accounts a mama’s boy. Living with her until he was forty, Hoover was very dependent on her ideals. In one sequence – a sequence that is also the film’s most chilling – Hoover’s mother, Annie (Judi Dench), recounts to him a story about a classmate of his who went by the nickname “Daffy.” After the anecdote she drives the point home telling Edgar that she’d rather have “a dead son than a daffodil for a son.” The reflection exposes a monstrous Ms. Hoover and with that we gain a better understanding of why he closeted his personal life from others.
Much of the story is narrated by an aged Hoover reflecting back on his career with the Bureau. Agents slide in and out over the course of weeks typing new pages while also answering any questions poised their way by Hoover. Black’s decision to devise the narrative this way leaves little wiggle room to challenge the authenticity of the tale Hoover spins. Legendary movie producer Robert Evans said it best at the start of the documentary The Kid Stays in the Picture: “There are three sides to every story: my side, your side, and the truth.” With no proper checks and balances we have to trust Hoover’s judgment as a storyteller, which is later tested by his trusted number two man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Clyde’s relationship with Hoover is an intriguing one. In the beginning there was a mutual respect for one another. Tolson is a prissy man, and a written recommendation to the Bureau acknowledges his male-leaning tendencies. However, while clues are made to Hoover’s own homosexuality, his true sexual identity remains private. Even without outright acknowledging their affection for one another Hoover and Tolson remained companions for close to five decades, always taking the time each day to dine together at lunch and dinner. Such is a rarity to be so committed to a practice and repeat it day after day, crazy as it may sound to a layman.
Hoover’s dictation centers the narrative and in the process provides commentary on a number of events that transpired after the end of the First World War. Among the key points are the Bolshevik invasion in 1919, the rise of gangsters during the Great Depression, and the Lindbergh baby kidnapping. The last event is explored with greater interest, as it is the case that established the FBI as an elite institution for solving crimes.
Purposely, I’ve waited until now to discuss Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal as the titular character. In J. Edgar he plays the man tenaciously. It may very well be DiCaprio’s most demanding role to date. It’s easy to respect such a performance from afar, playing a stalwart twenty-year-old working inside the Justice Department before becoming the first acting director of the FBI – a position he held for thirty-seven years. It’s a taxing role, and one that required the actor to wear facial and body prosthetics to present the illusion a seventy-year-old man. But his performance is overall lacking in emotion. There’s no fire. He shows great dedication to playing an important historical figure, for sure, but doesn’t have the naturalness like Jamie Foxx had as Ray Charles or the forcefulness George C. Scott carried as Patton.
Armie Hammer, who some may recall as having seen double as the Winklevoss Twins in The Social Network, is a better character as Tolson, sometimes pushed to the background whenever the narrative switches to Hoover and his mother. Had the film been told through his eyes as a close spectator to Hoover’s rise to power and ultimate death, the film would have packed a greater emotional punch. The other woman in Hoover’s life is Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), his longtime secretary and confidante. Watts is sadly wasted in this feature, given little to do or say. It’s akin to walking the sidelines holding a clipboard.
J. Edgar is a good film that by all accounts should have been great. It is beautifully crafted, highlighted by its production design and Tom Stern’s cinematography – the raid a Bolshevik safe house and the shadows reflecting off the characters are quite remarkable. Too bad the same can’t be said for the make-up which, in the case of Armie Hammer’s old Tolson portrayal, could pass for a midnight feature.
DiCaprio may be solid as J. Edgar – and a venerable lock for an acting nomination – but Eastwood’s film remains scattered and unfocussed, trying to be a biopic, a chronicle of a government agency’s rise, and a love story. The relationship angle may not have been accepted by most Eastwood purists, but it would have offered the most in terms of emotion and substance.
Travis Leamons is one of the Inside Pulse Originals and currently holds the position of Managing Editor at Inside Pulse Movies. He's told that the position is his until he's dead or if "The Boss" can find somebody better. I expect the best and I give the best. Here's the beer. Here's the entertainment. Now have fun. That's an order!