It’s hard to believe that audiences are just now seeing a biopic about J. Edgar Hoover, founder of the FBI and man with enough skeletons in his closet to curl one’s hair. When one did get made it definite had some clout! The film J. Edgar boasts a director like Clint Eastwood and phenomenal performances from Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts. The film is a taste clunky and long but the acting and story keep you riveted until the last scene.
J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio) is telling his life’s story to fellow FBI agents writing his autobiography. Throughout the film one learns about his life, his relationship with his domineering mother (Judi Dench), his long-time secretary (Watts) and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Hammer). As Hoover’s power grew he found more manipulative ways to hold onto it including blackmailing the world’s most prominent figures.
Eastwood and crew definitely make the film feel like the time periods depicted. From the grit of the 1930s to the flash of the 60’s the film emphasizes and expertly highlights each period. There are several moments that just seem like loving tributes to film including scenes of characters in movie theaters watching films about gangsters and G-Men. The film lifts elements from film noir, especially with the focus on the Lindbergh kidnapping, and the political thriller in how Hoover holds onto his power. All throughout you doubt Hoover’s version of events as in the beginning of the film he tells the agents to embellish bits of the story to “add to the narrative.” You begin to question if Hoover was at certain places or did certain things and it’s not till the end you understand what’s fact and fiction. Regardless, you’re awed and scared of the man because it’s apparent no matter if his details are accurate, they had the ability to instill fear and reverence in people.
The cast is what sells the film and what might allow this movie to hit big come Oscar time. DiCaprio is a presence as Hoover. The old age makeup has already been sighted as being atrocious, which it is, but DiCaprio still sells you on the character. The accent is a bit wobbly but when he strides into a room you feel he can harm a person. His chemistry with Hammer is electric and his relationship with Watts’ Helen Gandy is one of mutual respect and friendship. Hammer is sweet and vulnerable as Clyde Tolson and you understand why he would come to care for a man like Hoover. The film doesn’t shy away from stating what their relationship to each other was but you can see why each man found love for the other. Watts has a smaller role but she is fantastic as Helen Gandy, a woman struggling to have her own career who found respect in a world of men.
The film does have its flaw, mainly in pacing and runtime. The film is over two hours and does start to feel it, especially with how many times we jump back and forth. At times you have to struggle to orient yourself and ask “when are we?” It doesn’t help with the most minute of scene changes. The transitions are triggered by objects a character sees that segues into the next scene. Sometimes these transitions have little connection to them so it’s hard to figure out why that particular event or element caused us to jump forward or backward in time. By the end it seems like you’re yo-yoing back and forth with little rhyme or reason. Dench’s role as J. Edgar’s mother Anne is by far the most cliché and over the top. A scene where she tells J. Edgar about his friend “Daffy” screamed of cheesiness and the way she tells if you’re almost wondering if she wants to replace the word “daffodil” with a gay slur, it’s that smarmy and mean-spirited. It’s unnecessary from the character and there’s no reason why Dench has to play the character so villainous.
Despite a clunky set-up the performance and story keeps you engaged. From the Lindbergh case to the Kennedy’s there’s a ton of history to wade through and be wowed by. I wouldn’t be surprised to see Oscar nods for Hammer, DiCaprio and Watts at some point. If you miss this in theaters definitely check it out on DVD!