J. Edgar examines the life of one of America’s most mysterious figures, FBI Director Hoover. The film follows Hoover (played by an unrecognisable Leonardo DiCaprio) towards the end of his life, as he attempts to dictate his memoirs and the story of the FBI (the two being wholly intertwined).
In 1924, at the tender age of twenty-nine, Hoover was appointed director of the Bureau of Investigation, and remained until his death in 1972. The Bureau was his life: he never married or had children, and he kept his secretary, Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts), and deputy Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), with him throughout his career.
Hoover’s tenure at the Bureau oversaw some of the most important controversies and scandals of the American century: John Dillinger’s capture, The Cuban Missile Crisis, the assassinations of JFK and Martin Luther King, the death of Marilyn Monroe, Hoover’s name crops up everywhere. Clint Eastwood’s film stumbles nervously through a few of these energetic and utterly cinematic situations before settling on the most stale and untenable facets of Hoover’s life: his cynical involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping case, and his homosexual love affair with Tolson.
In March 1932 legendary aviator Charles A. Lindbergh’s infant son was kidnapped from the family home. It was a case for the state police, but Hoover used the ensuing trial to widen the scope of the FBI and to create a centralised fingerprint database. It is an important part of American history, but a comparatively boring one. As for Hoover’s homosexuality: it can never be proven, and allowing it to consume our understanding of the man is demeaning. He wasn’t a good person, but he was a multi-faceted one. Tarring him (for two hours) with this brush is irresponsible and, again, boring.
This is all a huge shame, because Hoover was unarguably one of the most sinister and shadowy figures of the 20th Century. He answered to nobody, and used his power to amass private files on every political figure and celebrity in the United States. He was Norman Bates with a more attuned and sinister “Mummy” complex. He didn’t need to spy through a hole in the shower, he had the most well funded institution in Washington for that. He spied on John F Kennedy and used the resulting sex tape to bribe brother Bobby, then Attorney General, to fund his ongoing and entirely pointless anti-Communist campaigns.
You could close your eyes and poke a stick into almost any part of the man’s life and come up with a story bristling with intrigue and energy. How Eastwood has managed to create so dull a film is actually quite stunning. Nor can Eastwood argue that he didn’t want to cast aspersions on unproven stories: if this were the case, why does he spend half the film watching Hoover and Tolson’s wild and emotional love affair, for which there has never been a shred of corroborated evidence?
The film is almost saved by its three central performances. DiCaprio, Hammer and Watts have their faces caked in varying degrees of makeup and prosthetics throughout the film in an attempt to convey the almost half a century over which the story takes place. The makeup is as good as you will see without the overpriced CGI geekery of Cameron or Fincher, but it is hugely distracting for the viewer and, with less capable actors, might have destroyed the natural performances.
Fortunately these are not lesser actors. DiCaprio is, as we have come to expect, excellent as Hoover. He transcends the prosthetic appendages and conveys the slow deterioration of a powerful man in ways no makeup or CGI ever could. His eyes are always alight, but his voice slowly weak ens to a croak, and his shoulders stoop to creaking. It is a powerful performance, supported admirably by the understated grace of Naomi Watts and the chirpy, disarming Armie Hammer.