“J. Edgar” explores the personal and public life of one of the most powerful men in American history, J. Edgar Hoover. The film weaves across several timelines as it focuses on an eccentric man who would stop at nothing to protect his country. As the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation for nearly 50 years, Hoover continually waged battles against threats which were both real and perceived. The film attempts to decipher events in Hoover’s life which are both factual and rumored.
As an individual, Hoover was not a particularly exciting figure and his many accomplishments don’t always lend themselves to riveting cinema. As such, a vested interest in this period of American history may be necessary to thoroughly enjoy “J. Edgar”. The film has two major factors to further entice filmgoers in its director, Clint Eastwood and star, Leonardo DiCaprio. Both of whom help steer the film towards character-driven drama and away from becoming a standardized cinematic history lesson.
DiCaprio is an actor who seems to make all right career choices. While not all of his films are universally loved, one would be hard pressed to point out a bad one in his respectable filmography. Here, he gives an Oscar-worthy performance as J. Edgar Hoover, a challenging role on many levels. DiCaprio pulls off playing Hoover at various stages in his life as well as tackling Hoover’s unique manner of speech. This is the first time DiCaprio and Eastwood have worked together, but one can only hope it’s not the last.
The film is told from Hoover’s own perspective as he dictates his manuscript to a federal employee. As a result of this form of storytelling, certain aspects of his life are slightly embellished. The embellishments are in place to give Hoover the glory whenever possible, but the film makes certain to point out fact from fiction. DiCaprio plays Hoover as a man who distorts the truth just as easily as he upholds it. Hoover considered himself a patriot and had his own definition of justice; often bending the rules to keep his countrymen safe.
As a man who viewed information as power, Hoover demanded loyalty above all else. Hoover was extremely guarded in both his private life and his public one, allowing only a small and protective inner circle into his confidence. His closest colleague, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), was also his constant companion and a deeper relationship is more than alluded to in the film. Hoover’s personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) was perhaps his most loyal aide and privy to Hoover’s treasure trove of secret files. In the film, Hoover is portrayed as the ultimate momma’s boy; forever seeking the love and approval of his mother (Judi Dench). Hoover’s mother served as both his inspiration and his conscience.
“J. Edgar” takes place over an enormous amount of time that spans decades. Aging makeup obviously comes into play and the results are not always perfect. The makeup applied to DiCaprio as an older Hoover can take some getting used to. However, once DiCaprio settles into the role he’s accepted as Hoover in all the various stages of his life. Unfortunately, the aging process is less kind to the supporting characters of Clyde Tolson (Hammer) and Helen Gandy (Watts). The makeup applied to Hammer specifically can often appear to be distracting as it’s not quite on par with DiCaprio’s.
While this film about J. Edgar Hoover can’t be called exciting, it’s often fascinating; especially when one considers the many innovations Hoover brought about. Hoover helped develop many aspects of criminal science that we take for granted today. He was ahead of his time in demanding forensic evidence from crime scenes and developing a centralized system to log finger prints. Most of his innovations were dismissed by others, but as Hoover (DiCaprio) explains in the film, “Innovators aren’t celebrated, not at first.”
Hoover was also obsessed with logging information on his perceived enemies. He devised detailed lists of alleged communists and so-called radicals. He often focused on intended crimes rather than committed ones, with a steadfast philosophy of “trust no one.” The film portrays Hoover as a deeply paranoid man who only really trusted his mother.
The film showcases some great scenes in which Hoover exerts his authority over leading political figures. As a man who placed a high value on the secrets of others, Hoover often used that information to his advantage. As a result, he gained unprecedented influence and built a reputation that was both formidable and untouchable. There is something devious about Hoover in these moments where’s he’s attempting to gain leverage, but DiCaprio plays them off with stealth confidence.
“J. Edgar” pieces together snapshots of Hoover’s life based on both known facts and educated assumptions. This difficult task is accomplished thanks largely to a terrific screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) and director Clint Eastwood. In Eastwood’s capable hands, the film takes care not to portray Hoover as a hero or a villain. Hoover’s methods could be described as both ruthless and heroic and Eastwood focuses on both aspects. Eastwood wisely adheres to real life events to create the film’s ample drama and even plays off Hoover’s socially awkward behavior for an occasional laugh.
The prize Hoover coveted above all was also the most elusive to him — worldwide admiration for his efforts. That same prize may also be elusive to the film itself, as “J. Edgar” is not a film that will please mass audiences seeking generic, escapist entertainment. There is a slow and deliberate pace to the film as it focuses more on character moments than grand events. Those who do not care for such a well-crafted historical character study may dismiss the film as boring. However, “J. Edgar” is anything but boring and stands as a fascinating portrayal of a truly complicated and often unlikeable man.