Film Review: J. Edgar

Leonardo DiCaprio's committed performance is the main reason to see this wordy, speculative account of the life of imperious, obsessive FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.

J. Edgar Hoover, the fabled director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years, was not only the keeper of explosive secrets about the nation’s most powerful public figures, but closely guarded the details of his own apparently ascetic private life. Ironically, that evasiveness probably fueled even greater speculation about his sexual identity and the nature of his relationship with his longtime confidant, agent Clyde Tolson. We’ll never know precisely what was in Hoover’s notorious “private files” or what really happened behind his own closed doors, but that hasn’t stopped Oscar-winning Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and director Clint Eastwood from fashioning their own take on the 20th century’s complex, controversial “top cop” in the sprawling J. Edgar.

Eastwood and Black’s project is ambitious and exerts a certain fascination, but its attempts to cover so much thematic and historic ground are not exactly a model of economy. The first half-hour is especially overstuffed and talky, as it recounts Hoover’s early years as a young agent determined to bring systematic, centralized investigative techniques (including a national fingerprint database) to the battle against post-World War I anarchists. It isn’t until Hoover is named director of the Bureau at the age of 29 and immediately enforces his capricious standards (no moustaches!) that the story gets interesting; it becomes even more provocative with the puckish glances exchanged between Hoover and his hand-picked assistant director, the dashing Tolson.

In its 136-minute running time, J. Edgar checks off most of the major turning points in Hoover’s career: his war against Prohibition-era gangsters like John Dillinger and Alvin Karpis (and his resentment toward celebrated agent Melvin Purvis); his dogged hunt for the kidnapper of aviator Charles Lindbergh’s ill-fated baby boy (an episode which gets curiously extended screen time); his hostile relationship with cocky young Attorney General Robert Kennedy; his obsession with civil-rights champion Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he regarded as a dangerous agitator and womanizing hypocrite. One odd omission, however, is the FBI’s role in the ’50s anti-Communist mania.

The film more than acknowledges Hoover’s innovations as a crime-fighter and the essential role he played in protecting the nation from some truly nefarious villains. But, like the monomaniacal Charles Foster Kane, Hoover has deep-seated character flaws that tarnish his legacy. Black’s script lays much of the blame on Edgar’s domineering mother (Judi Dench), who at one point explicitly tells him she’d prefer a dead son to a “daffodil.” In the film’s psychoanalysis, sexual repression is the key to Hoover’s enforcement of a rigid FBI code of conduct, his giddy pleasure in unearthing other people’s peccadilloes, his overreaction to perceived subversive elements in American society. And, as Black would have it, it was Tolson who was comfortable enough in his own skin to desire a true romantic relationship with Hoover, but the FBI director was too terrified to make it anything but platonic.

That tantalizing push-and-pull between Hoover and Tolson is by far the most successful aspect of the film, with the two agents resembling an old married couple (absent any memories of their lusty youth) and gossiping about celebrity scandals and other people’s fashion choices. As Tolson, Armie Hammer of The Social Network says more with a knowing smile than any line of Black’s wordy dialogue.

J. Edgar is also something of a tour de force for its 36-year-old star Leonardo DiCaprio, who plays Hoover from his 20s to his death at 77. The old-age makeup isn’t always convincing (and is downright sepulchral on Hammer), but DiCaprio makes us forget the baby-faced matinee idol of the ’90s and immerses himself in the persona of this brilliant, driven, obsessive and haunted lawman. Black’s speeches alone are daunting, but DiCaprio plows through them and emerges with a nuanced, intelligent and deeply felt performance.

Lending warm support is Naomi Watts as Hoover’s longtime secretary Helen Gandy, who acquires her position after she rejects Edgar’s rash marriage proposal during a most eccentric date at the Library of Congress.

Like Clint Eastwood’s other recent films, the movie benefits enormously from the craft contributions of his frequent collaborators, cinematographer Tom Stern (working with a desaturated palette), production designer James J, Murakami, costume designer Deborah Hopper and editors Joel Cox and Gary D. Roach. Eastwood himself contributed the piano-inflected music score, proficient but lacking the punch which might have made this verbose film more dynamic.