Besides a rip roaring performance from Leonardo DiCaprio, J. Edgar suffers from the heavy handed direction of Clint Eastwood who manages to turn this biopic on one of the most notorious men of all time into an uninspired bore.
Eastwood is known to direct his films in a particular way. He shoots fast, uses the same crew and doesn’t like surprises. J. Edgar is the wake-up call Eastwood needs to shake things up, because his methods of the trade have become rigid and tiresome, and as a result a potentially fine film has been wasted.
That is because J. Edgar Hoover is such an interesting character. Founder of the FBI, defender of the American way, a workaholic of the most extreme sense, and then there are the persistent rumours of his homosexuality and cross dressing, not to mention the scandalous abuses of power which tarnished his legacy.
Truth is no one knows just who J. Edgar Hoover was, yet trying to unwrap the enigma is Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (of Milk fame). It is a curious combination that does not work well on screen, with Eastwood’s conservative style and Black’s left wing ideals in a constant tug of war.
This is particularly felt in the homosexual subtext that finds contentment in a restrained acceptance. Eastwood and Black don’t want to have their Hoover come out of the closet, yet a crack in the door is also left open.
What is certain is that Leonardo DiCaprio delivers one of his best performances as Hoover. DiCaprio is expert at playing wound up characters and here that intense charisma is used to devastatingly good effect, even when buried under mountains of prosthetic make-up during scenes which depict Hoover as an older man.
Also good is the re-telling of pivotal moments in American history, and how they shaped Hoover and his elite crime force the FBI. From the rise of communist Bolshevik’s, to the scourge of armed gangsters, to the infamous Lindbergh kidnapping which gave the FBI its biggest credibility push, a great team of costume and set designers bring these moments to life with sharp detail.
Yet not all technical facets are impressive. The make-up effects are adequate at best and horrifically presented under cinematographer Tom Stern’s usually spot on eye. Armie Hammer – who plays Hoover’s right hand man and suspected lover Clyde Tolson – comes out the worse, with his older man make-up akin to a puffy Halloween mask.
It is a shame to watch such potential in a film wasted by otherwise talented people. J. Edgar should have been an absorbing exploration into one of the most polarising and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. Instead it’s a plodding, mediocre bore.