Director: Clint Eastwood
MPAA Rating: R
Studio: Imagine Entertainment
In J. Edgar, director Clint Eastwood has created an intelligent, decade - spanning biographical movie wrapped around a controversial and polarizing public figure, the iron-fisted and monstrously influential J. Edgar Hoover. The man most responsible for founding the FBI and who held sway under six consecutive U.S. Presidents, three of whom considered ousting him for overstepping his bounds but nevertheless turned a blind eye to his wrong doings since the potential political ramifications would be critical.
For years the government didn’t know how to handle the vindictive racist, homophobic, misogynistic, pathological paranoid who so abused the authority he grabbed for himself, that, according to Eleanor Roosevelt, he created an American Gestapo. Hoover is a subject worthy of Shakespeare, of grand opera. So it's not surprising that J. Edgar, as expertly directed by Eastwood from a screenplay by Oscar winner Dustin Lance Black (Milk), is often quite moving while treating its central character as an object worthy of fascination, repulsion and admiration --but also of pity.
It’s clear from his first appearance on screen that, as Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio has come loaded for bear. He's obviously worked hard on the voice, gait, movements, the ‘look’ along with communicating Hoover’s fears, peculiarities, insecurities and crippling social ineptness with expert precision. Although DiCaprio's efforts can sometimes come off as too studied and obvious, he hits his stride in Hoover's extracurricular off-the-job scenes. There's Hoover's pathetically awkward, unlikely ‘courtship’ of his attractive, ferociously protective administrative assistant (Naomi Watts).
There is a spectacularly respectable scene in which Hoover learns to dance for the first time, thanks to his complicated and influential mother played by the evocative and memorable Judi Dench. In fact, every scene between DiCaprio and Dench crackles with brilliance. Asides from the notable chemistry DiCaprio holds with his on-screen mother, Armie Hammer’s role compliments DiCaprio perfectly as Hoover’s right hand man and confidante at the FBI and, as the film suggests with discretion, his lover.
Apparently, the FBI is currently in a furor over Eastwood and Black’s depiction of the nature of the Hoover-Tolson relationship – yes, they do kiss, yes they do flirt, yes Hoover does take Tolson on private vacations, yes they do bicker and spar like an old married couple. DiCaprio and Hammer not only share strong screen chemistry but also treat the relationship with dignity, complexity and tenderness; right to the end. Unfortunately their scenes as their character’s older selves though, the actors are badly undercut by rubbery looking ‘aging’ makeup that seems to be prepared in Hollywood many, many decades ago.
Despite some very careful period detail, some of the film’s dialogue clangs with anachronistic buzzwords and there is a pretty dubious casting of actors to play the likes of President Richard M. Nixon and arch conservative film star Ginger Rogers. Although J. Edgar may not be towering and definitive as one might hope, it is thoroughly gripping, powerful and packs a toothy political bite. Eastwood and company have taken a thorny, adult subject and created a film that is infinitely more affecting and human than one might expect.