|Image: Warner Bros.|
The prospect of a filmmaker like Clint Eastwood taking on a subject as fascinating as J. Edgar Hoover with a leading man like Leonardo DiCaprio got us pretty excited. Hoover’s long been due an in-depth biopic and there’s no denying the pedigree of that partnership.
It’s near the end of Kennedy’s time in office and J. Edgar Hoover is concerned with his public image and so begins work on an autobiography/history of the FBI. He looks back over his early days working to stamp out communism, his war on organised crime, his total domination of law enforcement, and his relationships with his domineering mother (Judi Dench) and his “right hand man” Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
It’s not really a surprise that Eastwood’s film is a fairly serious proposition, clocking in at 2 hours 20 minutes. What is a disappointment is that the film itself a bit biopic-by-numbers. Eastwood and writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) take a completely conventional approach, with the lonely, paranoid Hoover looking back over his youth, the cast gamely performing through increasingly suffocating latex (Hammer especially looks in danger of drowning) and vocal impressions.
While J. Edgar is never exactly boring, it’s rarely particularly thrilling. The make-up and the impersonations are a distraction that never really goes away (Jeffrey Donovan’s Bobby Kennedy being arguably the worst offender). Much of the war on crime was covered with somewhat more energy in Michael Mann’s underrated Public Enemies (which had a solid turn from Billy Crudup as Hoover). However, this film is about Hoover rather than Dillinger, and DiCaprio is on fine form with a performance that’s fiery enough to get through the trappings of impersonation to find the awkward, excitable, temperamental man underneath. Rather than show Hoover as a sweating, power-grabbing villain, Eastwood and DiCaprio show him as a crusader who truly believes he is working for the greater good. Presidents need to be convinced to leave him alone to do his job, and what better way to keep them away than to let them know what you have on them? But the line between self-belief and delusion is a fine one.
While the law enforcement scenes may be something of a disappointment the scenes which find Hoover at his most open and personal work very well. His mother (Judi Dench) is strong and proud provided he stays on course. His assistant Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts) is unflinchingly loyal but does not hesitate to reject his proposal of marriage. His relationship with Tolson becomes increasingly tragic as they reach a sort of agreed state of co-dependence, the two men in love, only one of whom can admit to it. While it’s DiCaprio’s show, we should mention Watts’ impressively understated performance. Hammer has excellent chemistry with DiCaprio, it’s just a shame that he disappears under prosthetics towards the end.
While it may be a little plodding and a little predictably handled, DiCaprio’s performance is excellent. What it lacks in energy, it makes up for with a surprisingly affecting love story.
Not quite the excellent drama we were hoping for, but J. Edgar finds the humanity beneath the caricature.