J. Edgar is the new film from Clint Eastwood, a director who, since Changeling, has managed to make a series of films that sound terrible but which manage to be among the best of the year. From his brilliant 2008 double, Changeling and Gran Torino to his exciting-when-it-shouldn’t-have-been Invictus and then Hereafter, a film that should have been sentimental and dumb but managed to become a really rather moving and poetic art movie. With J. Edgar, however, Eastwood has made a film that actually sounds like it should be good.
The film follows J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) from 1919 until his death in 1972, charting his rise to power in 1924 as head of the Bureau of Investigations (later known as the FBI) and his subsequent career through six turbulent decades and eight presidents. It charts his fight against Communist anarchists in 1919, the Lindbergh kidnapping of 1932 and the hunt for John Dillinger and includes run-ins with the John and Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and Richard Nixon.
J. Edgar has a lot to go through and it sometimes forsakes good storytelling practice in order to do it. While Eastwood and the film’s writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) have their own set of priorities – Eastwood seems to be dedicated to historical balance and Black wants to chart Hoover’s tentative romance with his assistant Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) – the need to be a proper biopic, a greatest hits of all the moments for which we all know J. Edgar, drowns the film in detail. As a result, we see a lot of things that don’t necessarily matter, in the context of the film itself while other things, such as the Dillinger case or Hoover’s obsessive phone-tapping, are hinted at but not given the time they deserve.
The other major problem lies in the film’s make-up. The narrative cuts between Hoover in the 1920/1930s and Hoover in the 1960/1970s, which means that DiCaprio is constantly jumping around an age difference of about forty years. This makes the prosthetic jowls and receding hairlines stand out all the more and they become rather distracting. Armie Hammer is the worst effected, looking like something from The Lord of the Rings. There are many scenes towards the films end that aim for poignancy, but the make-up proves to be rather too difficult to get over. In fact, it is a tribute to DiCaprio and Hammer that the film does manage some emotional moments despite the fact that they look like Splitting Image puppets.
On the plus side, the film can’t help but be very interesting as, after all, Hoover is such a fascinating figure. The film tackles Hoover’s life with a very balanced approach. It could have just as easily been a hectoring film about the corruption of power and the power of corruption, but manages to be much more subtle. Though the film may steer away from the more questionable aspects of Hoover’s career, it does provide an interesting though messy portrait of a man obsessed with information and control. Though Hoover is admittedly not the most cinematic figure in America’s recent past, the film takes a decent stab at his life.
Towards the film’s end, there is some questioning of the nature of authorial identity and truth that seems to negate all that had come before and brings the characters of Hoover and Tolson into sharper focus. However, by then, it is a case of too-little-too-late. Hoover may not be able to lie to Tolson, but he does manage to spend most of the film lying to us.
Where a more critical film would probably end up being loud, one-note and possibly even exploitative, Eastwood and Black aim for a portrait of a man who can’t come to terms with human fallibility and his inevitable obsession with keeping power. Despite a messy storyline and some distracting make-up, it is a film that strives to get to the essence of the man rather than being a fact-checking, box-ticking polemic, a move that does seem to be more useful.