Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Josh Lucas.
This biopic on the FBIs infamous founder/director who ran it for nearly five decades with an iron fist and a warped ideology doesn’t quite give you a sense of the real man or his impact on America. Instead, it goes along like a semi-documentary with nothing particularly intriguing about it.
J Edgar Hoover was the man who put the word ‘Federal’ in the Bureau of Investigation with his staunch belief that America needed a big brother-like system complete with finger imprint records of citizens and forensics ala C.S.I to weed out traitors and keep the country safe. This film traces his meteoric rise up the ranks of the Bureau, the changes that he brought about, the Presidents that he had in his pockets because of his secret files on them, the struggle he faced trying to appear to be a hero rather than a dictator who took all the credit, and his ‘relationship’ with second in command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Leonardo DiCaprio plays the titular icon (if you can call him that) who in his old age decides to tell his life story (as he sees it) to FBI Public Relations agents and so the film flashes back between time periods from his youth to middle age to very old age indeed. Instead of CGI, director Clint Eastwood and his team have used prosthetics and make-up to ‘gray’ the characters complete with freckles and all. But in the process it ends up looking fake and makes it extremely difficult for the actors to emote through the layers of silicone. Though Leo does a pretty good job inspite of that.
For me what was interesting was how this man, dominated by his mother (Judi Dench), confused about his sexuality or rather repressing it, secretly in love (though he didn’t realise it) with his man-at-arms managed to create one of the most powerful organisations in the world. He was the one who introduced the idea of a finger printing system, of forensic evidence. But then he also sacked agents on a whim (facial hair!) and had secret files on Presidents, and portrayed himself to be a super G-Man (Government Man, for comic books of the time), taking credit for capturing the glorified gangsters of the time, when it was actually his band of agents who did the dirty work.
At a running time well in excess of two hours, J Edgar becomes a bit plodding. The interesting bits aren’t actually the mystery and intrigue of his office but of his submissive relationship with his mother, who makes it clear to him that she’d rather have a dead son than a ‘daffodil’ as a son. The other moments are when he and Clyde are together. You can see that genuine love and admiration that they have for each other. But Armie Hammer’s beautiful face and consequently his expressions are lost in the scenes where he’s buried in that terrible ‘old age’ make-up. It looks almost funny.
I think good ol’ Clint Eastwood is a bit long in the tooth too now and it shows in J Edgar, which has little appeal to a modern generation of viewers. What he should have done was to let Leo and Armie play the young J Edgar and Clyde and let some older actors play the old age parts. That may have worked a tad better.