If Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic is anything to go by then J. Edgar Hoover was not only the face of law enforcement in America for the better part of half a century, but he was also uncomfortably awkward around ladies, a closest gay and crossdresser. Needless to say, the man led quite a life.
J. Edgar is an absorbing, masterfully directed biographical film about the man once called the second most powerful man in America. The screenplay, penned by Academy Award winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk), uses a framing device similar to the recent Iron Lady. Essentially, the film has an elderly Hoover dictating his memoirs to various typewritists (he keeps changing them whenever he finds something about their character that he doesn’t like) and flashes back to his youthful years to follow his meteoric rise as first director of the FBI.
As a result the film tends to be somewhat episodic, robbing it of a little focus. It can also be confusing because there’s rarely a date to put to the various time periods that it jumps between; I was often wondering when certain events were occurring, and the film strangely seems to skip over the entirety of World War II – did Hoover just go into hibernation for a few years?
Alas, young or old, Hoover is played with convincing aplomb by predictably competent Leonardo DiCaprio (Inception). There’s an ease with which he inhabits the character and it makes for a powerful performance. The elderly makeup is not always believable however, especially on Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer; The Social Network) – Hoover’s right hand man. There’s something unnatural about the way Hammer’s elderly makeup marries his performance as an aged man, making it weirdly off-putting. It’s far too fake-looking and ends up marring the experience.
The fact that the story is at its best when following the young men instead of the old, and that the film is already too long at 137 minutes, makes me wish Eastwood had dropped the framing device altogether. It would have been much more thrilling if it was built around any one of its many ‘episodes’ and had followed Hoover’s exploits, public and private, as well as the turn to forensic methodology, throughout that particular period. The chief candidate for this was the so-called ‘Crime of the Century’: the Lindbergh kidnapping.
Part of the issue is that the film keeps the audience at arm’s length. I’d never heard of Charles Lindbergh before and the movie simply assumed that I knew who he was, why he was important and why the crime was so shocking – I was waiting for an explanation but it never came. Plenty of other characters pop up and important events are mentioned with barely any exposition but I feel like I was also expected to know who and what they were. Knowledge of 20th century American history isn’t a must but it clearly helps in appreciating the significance of specific events.
Yet when I come down to it J.Edgar remains a fascinating experience, and if I hadn’t known better I might have guessed that it was directed by David Fincher (The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, The Social Network) – it looked and felt like one of his films; the period production design was immaculate and had a dark, Fincher-esque edge to it. Eastwood has done a terrific job (he also composed the soundtrack) and has little left to prove in terms of his technical mastery of the medium. It’s DiCaprio’s performance however, that really anchors the film and makes it well worth the watch; J. Edgar Hoover… what an incorrigible little man!