J. Edgar Hoover was an unfavorable though undeniably influential man in America’s history. But somehow, Clint Eastwood‘s latest directorial feature J. Edgar presents the controversial first Director of the FBI as a human with an intriguing background. Questionable in his public image and elusive in his private life, this sugary yet polished biopic captures the man’s most publicized incidents as well as what may or may not have happened behind closed doors.
J. Edgar follows Hoover as a 24-year-old during the Palmer Raids all the way to his death at age 77 in 1972. The events are told chronologically and narrated by Hoover, portrayed by Leonardo DiCaprio, who is providing anecdotes for his autobiography. The cross-cutting of events from the present day with those from the past provides for the exceptional storytelling in the film, partially. The audience is taken through some of history’s most notable events that Hoover was involved in, from the kidnapping and murder of Charles Lindbergh’s (Josh Lucas) baby to the rise of communism. The man is seen throughout performing some of the actions that have made him infamous, though in ways that can actually seem more humorous than enraging, such as eliminating some of his first FBI agents for not reaching his high physical, educational, and moral standards and participating in a photo op for credit in capturing the baby’s alleged murderer.
But beyond the history, the politics of the times, and the long career held by Hoover, attention will definitely be on the relationships portrayed in this film. Initially, Hoover is attracted to Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), a new member of the bureau’s secretarial staff. After she rejects his marriage proposal, he proposes an alternative for her to be his personal secretary, which she accepts. There is no longer any romantic subtext between the two, but instead a strong and loyal life-long working relationship. The other woman in Hoover’s life, his mother Anne Marie (Judi Dench), is nurturing but dominant in the way Hoover lived with her until her death. His lack of his attraction to women is perhaps what may have caused much speculation about the relationship with his associate director Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), who he hires for the position despite not being qualified enough. The film touches on this explicitly with campy sexual innuendos, but exquisitely on an emotional level rather than on a physical one.
The chemistry that DiCaprio and Hammer share is elegant and comfortable, and they walk whatever lines Hoover and Tolson shared together very well, albeit as partners as head G-men, trustworthy friends, or a romance. It helps that the two actors turn in extraordinary individual performances, sure to be some of the most talked-about of the year, in a film that’s already receiving mixed reviews. The makeup jobs aging DiCaprio and Hammer (And Watts) are debatable, but the acting is what brings the characters to life throughout the ages. DiCaprio is commanding and even a little fearsome as Hoover, establishing a hard-to-ignore presence as the man himself. It’s one of the best if not the single best immersions of a character DiCaprio has soaked himself in. And he has sass, which Hammer also exudes but even more as the glamour-adoring Tolson. However, it is in their older years that both actors make their most incredible impacts, as Hoover goes through his last motions in his very eventful life and Tolson feels the effects of old age.
Visually, the film’s set design, costumes, cinematography, and use of desaturated color for its duration makes J. Edgar a breathtaking and true-to-life historical replica. And although it is sure to be yet another topic for debate, Dustin Lance Black‘s screenplay also helps carry Eastwood’s film to greatness, along with those masterclass technical aspects and DiCaprio and Hammer’s memorable performances. Sure, it’s a bit light and doesn’t tell the whole story of J. Edgar Hoover, but the Oscar-winning screenwriter (For 2008’s Milk) breathes both intelligence and intimacy to a tale that could have been told in a multitude of other ways. Black’s screenplay offers a unique and eye-opening volleying of lines and monologues for a character study that’s quite stirring in its own way.
For me, J. Edgar‘s glaring weakness is that it ends about six or seven times before it actually does end. However, this gorgeously absorbing historical drama is a must-see for its stellar performances and fascinating storytelling. Come in with an open mind—Even if you flat-out hated Hoover from what you learned about him, it doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy a film about him.