J. Edgar (2 out of 5 Stars)
Directed by Clint Eastwood (Million Dollar Baby, Mystic River, Unforgiven, Gran Torino)
Written by Dustin Lance Black (Milk)
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts and Judi Dench
Who was J. Edgar Hoover? The answer to that question is not in this film, but like with most biopics they are only meant to provide a story or version of actual events. The film starts with J. Edgar dictating his own story to different agents of the FBI. The film jumps back and forth between Hoover as a young man climbing through the justice department under the Attorney General to founding the FBI, and then working under President Kennedy.
Hoover served under 8 different Presidents as head of head of the Bureau of Investigations which was later renamed the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI); he was appointed by Calvin Coolidge and died during the Nixon administration. The beginning of the film shows Hoover's ambition within the Bureau and how believed that systems could be created to track different people, like using their fingerprints. As Hoover dictated his story throughout the film, he kept changing the agent who was typing his story, because they either did not answer a questions correctly, or he did not like the way they spoke or dressed.
The direction of this book Hoover was dictating pointed to him as a brilliant man who fought the Bolshevik Revolution along with Communists in general, brought down gangsters like John Dillinger, had power and control over Presidents, and who helped solve the mystery of the Lindburgh baby. In reality Hoover was a paranoid man who rarely arrested anyone, made himself look like more of a hero than he actually was and took credit for the work other people did.
Hoover's second in command throughout his entire time within the agency was Clyde Tolson. Within the the film there is an insinuation that Hoover was a closeted gay man who had a "relationship" with Tolson. There is limited proof on anything specific, but what this film does highlight is that Hoover was a complicated man with many demons which he tried to keep hidden. DiCaprio plays the titular character and does a good job capturing every element of Hoover's character; he is great in the role and is the highlight of this film. DiCaprio played another troubled historical figure, Howard Hughes in The Aviator, and it is apparent that this man take on incredibly complex roles and rise to the occasion.
The rest of the cast did an alright job. Armie Hammer's Clyde Tolson did a solid job playing the second in command, but his makeup while older was terrible. Judie Dench who played Hoover's mother and Naomi Watts who played Hoover's secretary were just there, there was nothing spectacular about either of their performances, mainly because the script never created a moment for them to shine.
The team of Eastwood and Black tried to take on a complex man in a simple way, but the direction and script had numerous flaws. While I was never bored this film began to fade towards the ending. Every time I heard DiCaprio do a voice over I assumed the film was coming to an end, but this happened about four or five times before the film actually ended. Eastwood's films have this grey look to them, and as a period biopic this worked, but unlike other films I never cared about the plot. Answering who this man was, was never going to happen, but they made his story less interesting. The inclusion of the different historical context was poorly woven into the fabric of the film.
All of Hoover's accomplishments which built his road to "success" were not handled well. Hoover had a complicated life, but it feels as though this film attempted to take on too many aspects and there was no true focus. Eastwood is a taut director and usually has such wonderful focus, but this film does not, and Black's script is sometime awkward and clumsy. I wanted this film to be good, and I glad it focused the rumored homosexuality, but even that was handled awkwardly. The film does not have a center of gravity and often never finds its central theme. Eastwood should be kissing the ground DiCaprio saved this film, now go back to Scorsese!