Tracing J. Edgar Hoover’s meteoric rise through the Justice Department and the Bureau of Investigation, to his leading role in establishing America’s world-famous law enforcement agency, the FBI, the film draws on the key figures who shaped his life, in particular, his resourceful, devoted secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and more importantly, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) an associate director of the bureau who is alleged to have been Hoover’s closeted lover throughout much of his adult life. Using the familiar flashback/forward framing device for much of the film (an elderly Hoover dictates his memoirs to an employee) there are also elements of the unreliable narrative here (he was a figure who definitely subscribed to the ‘print the legend’ theory) but Eastwood and Milk scriptwriter Dustin Lance Black are much more interested in exploring his upbringing and personal life, and how that manifested itself in his work (there are some fascinating glimpses into the historical leaps and bounds he made, which stemmed from his sometimes flamboyant ideas).
The film unfolds in a pleasingly leisurely way, and aided by a nice feel for the period and yet another powerhouse turn by DiCaprio, it turns out to be a surprisingly watchable affair. The actor truly absorbs into the character in a way he hasn’t done previously, shedding any signs of his own attractive persona. He’s been criticised in the past for his boyish looks, but they really work in his favour here, as there is something of a lost little boy quality to Hoover, who is still very much in the thralls of his mother (Judi Dench – quietly domineering as ever) in later adulthood and many years after her death.
DiCaprio also manages to make that jump from young buck to elderly statesman remarkably well through the use of make-up and a good grasp of the physicality required. Unfortunately, this is where things go sadly awry for the film too. While the work from DiCaprio proves enough for cinemagoers to make that leap in time for his character, the illusion falls short for Armie Hammer who looks like a 25-year-old in Jackass-style aged make-up. It’s incredibly hard to suspend disbelief when the otherwise talented actor is a frail old man, and every time he appears alongside his life partner, this cosmetic oversight runs the risk of constantly taking the audience out of the film.
Another actor to get short-changed is Naomi Watts. Her character feels incredibly underwritten, and Eastwood seems to have mistaken inactivity for stoicism, as she’s a little too subdued throughout and never really has any moments which allow her character (and the actress herself) to shine. She’s meant to be an emotional rock for the sometimes embattled Hoover, but this never comes across in a satisfying way.
Surprisingly for the director like Eastwood, it’s the moments which focus on the unrequited love between the two men which really resonates on an emotional level, particularly towards the end of the film where mortality factors heavily in their lives. There’s a touch of that sadness which pervaded Brokeback Mountain as the two figures shuffle around their chintzy residence together like an old married couple. Unfortunately, these nicely-judged scenes have to battle against the aforementioned make-up shortcomings, but it’s to the director’s credit that it all still manages to work.
In the end, J. Edgar is reminiscent of those hyped-up, stately Hollywood biopics which are wheeled out during awards season, but ultimately fail to live up to expectations. Both Eastwood and Black’s attempts to cut through the ambiguity of such a famous, yet mysterious character should still be applauded though, and if this isn’t quite an awards-worthy feature, it’s far from a crushing disappointment. Largely aided by a fabulous turn from an A-list star at the top of this professional game, there’s still much to admire here.