J. Edgar Hoover is one of those historical characters whose life story has become so surrounded by myth, rumour and malicious gossip, it’s almost impossible to disentangle the man from the caricature that now exists.
Director Clint Eastwood tries to cut through the lies, tittle tattle and media sensationalism to get at the truth and the real Hoover, but he errs on the side of caution and the film is less wonderful and rather worthy and stodgy because of it.
Spurred on by his ambitious mother (Judi Dench) young J. Edgar joins America’s fledgling secret investigation services in the 1920s and builds them up into the formidable and quite justifiably feared FBI. Hoover’s style was more intimidation and paranoia than good old honest detective work, but his mantra of ‘if you’re not with me you must be against me’ made him the most powerful man in the States bar the President himself (and J. Edgar wasn’t above spying on his paymasters either).
Through his career J. Edgar served six presidents and kept secret files on them all, forever trying to sniff out intrigue, sexual misdemeanours and his big bugbear, affiliation to the communist cause. He was aided and abetted by two loyal members of staff; his faithful and trusted secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his protégé Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Eastwood hints at a deeper, more emotional bond between Clyde and Hoover than simple friendship but leaves the extent of the relationship vague and is equally ambiguous when it comes to J. Edgar’s alleged predilection for dressing up in female clothing. However, this kind of hands off approach does not serve the film well as the audience is left in a kind of limbo as to what (and who) J. Edgar really is. This isn’t helped by the cut up timeframe of the movie with the action jumping forwards and back through the years rather confusing matters (and even in old man’s make up DiCaprio still looks and sounds young).
The film is also shot in myriad tones of beige, the camera lens giving a soft focus fuzziness to everything , a device that works well for the 1930s sections but is less successful as the century marches on. DiCaprio’s performance is solid, but not particularly memorable and it is actually Armie Hammer (so good in the Social Network) who impresses as Clive, really imbuing his character with pathos and a stoic longing that gives him the air of a loyal pet dog pining for his master.
At 137 minutes the film could do with a good half hour shaved off the running time. It could also do with the inclusion of some of the more colourful intrigue and rumour Clint Eastwood has been so at pains to leave out.