Following the professional and personal life of the fabled F.B.I. director J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio steps into the shoes of the man both young and old. Picking up in the man’s twilight years we flash back and forth to his youth as Hoover dictates a book to a string of aides and assistants. In between we also get apparent insights to his relationship to his number two man in the department, Clyde Tolson.
Now, as many of us know, Hoover was long rumored to be gay and possibly a wearer of women’s clothing; this film isn’t really about that. In fact, the film’s scope is surprisingly shallow and puts its focus mostly on one major event in making the F.B.I. a legitimate national enforcement agency. Revolving around the events of the Lindbergh baby, Hoover tells us how they exploited the events to service the agency and grow its, and his, power over the country.
The elements of the film that focus on the history and the growth of the F.B.I. are the most engaging and the film recreates the era quite well; underneath Eastwood’s minimal lighting schemes. Seeing how Hoover was able to manipulate the system and those around him is an impressive feat to watch and DiCaprio captures the obsessive nature of the man quite well.
The film’s shortcomings come when it is forced to fabricate and guess what might have happened in private among two men, Tolson and Hoover, as writer Dustin Lance Black tries to fill in the rumors. The romantic elements of the film, which isn’t a whole lot of it, are the weakest scenes and I just don’t know how comfortable I am with them assuming this is what happened among these men. Sure the men might have been gay, but how can we know anything like what the film depicts remotely happened.
There are a couple of other scenes full of conjecture, in particular one with RFK, that again make assumptions with what happened in a private room. In these instance we at least have a basis of Hoover’s personality, that is documented, to base these encounters on; allowing these more historical scenes of conjecture to play much better than the aforementioned romance.
The film also head fakes that it is going to wrap things up a number of times over the last half hour of the picture and while I didn’t feel the runtime it felt like the film had a multitude of endings.
Also falling short is the aging up make up in the picture, especially on Armie Hammer as Tolson. He looks almost cartoonish and it is a real wonder how anything that looked that bad was allowed on set. DiCaprio’s aging up works far better, and his performance makes his easier to accept, but even it has a couple of rough patches here and there over the course of the film.
The acting in the film is a stronger element of the picture, but is nothing to rave about either. DiCaprio is quite good as Hoover, capturing the neurosis of Hoover well, but we have seen a lot of the things DiCaprio brings to the performance done better by him in other films. I am a big fan of DiCaprio and I feel while good here he has done better work elsewhere. Armie Hammer is given a pretty straight and range less role as Clyde and the aforementioned make-up didn’t do him any favors when trying to assess his work as an elderly man. Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, and Judi Dench all fill small and ultimately inconsequential roles here too with nothing interesting to do to stand out; and that is a shame.
In the end, J. Edgar is mediocre at best due to its brighter elements being dulled by a lot of short comings. The actors are fine and the film looks sharp most of the time, but the lack of substance and depth on the subject matter makes the film a misfire. The more you assess it the more the faults of the film brings down your opinion and we are left with a wasted opportunity to really dig into an intriguing and powerful figure.
J. Edgar is a C-