Leonardo DiCaprio is not the first name that springs to mind as the embodiment of legendary FBI director J. Edgar Hoover—unlike, for instance, the title character in the upcoming remake of The Great Gatsby. I give the actor credit for his commitment to this assignment, but he’s still not quite right, especially if you’ve seen any newsreel footage of the bulldog-like Hoover. It’s more difficult to excuse screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood for making such a dull, monotonous biography of one of the 20th century’s most commanding and controversial figures.
Another glaring problem plagues the picture, which spans six decades: while one can (gradually) accept DiCaprio’s aging makeup, and even Naomi Watts’s, it is impossible to invest in any latter-day scene involving Armie Hammer because his old-age makeup is so astonishingly bad. Even if the film were brilliant, and it’s not, this would be a serious stumbling block, for which there is no apparent reason.
As for the dramaturgy, Black takes a nonlinear approach
to his subject, hopping back and forth in time to no particular effect. When we first see J. Edgar as a young man, he is embarking on his first investigation of Bolshevik terrorists in 1919 after they bomb the home of his boss, the Attorney General, in Washington, D.C. (He never wavered from his belief that our country was threatened by radicals on the home front, up to and including Martin Luther King Luther.) We also see his attempt to court a young woman on the secretarial staff who rebuffs his awkward advances but agrees to be his personal secretary—for the rest of her life. Yet we learn nothing else about Helen Gandy, and the part is a thankless one for the talented Watts.
We do learn that Hoover is dominated by his strong-willed mother (played by Judi Dench), that his father is non compos mentis (with no further elaboration or explanation), and that he is emotionally repressed, even before he meets Clyde Tolson (Hammer), his lifelong aide and companion who brings out his latent homosexual feelings, at least to some degree.
Anyone looking for greater insight into Hoover’s personality or his evolution as a political force will have to look elsewhere. This film is strictly superficial. I recall reading about Hoover’s fondness for the trendy Stork Club in Manhattan and his fruitful relationship with the powerful columnist Walter Winchell, but they don’t figure in this telling of his life story. There’s one brief allusion to him visiting New York and consorting with a movie star, but the only time we see him enjoying nightlife with a celebrity he becomes flustered and leaves abruptly.
Loose ends abound: Hoover’s mother refers to her two sons, but we never catch sight of (or hear about) J. Edgar’s brother beyond that single reference. There’s also an early dinner scene with Hoover’s young niece, who is never seen or mentioned again.
Beyond anything else, J. Edgar commits the cardinal movie sin: it’s dull. When there are specific points of comparison the film is especially vulnerable: the FBI chief’s showdowns with Attorney General Robert F. Kennedy have been dramatized much more effectively in other films and TV shows.
Overall, it seems as if much more effort was expended on authentic-looking wardrobe and CGI shots of Washington, D.C. than on character development and narrative. Despite its obviously impressive pedigree, this movie can only be described as a misfire.