In Clint Eastwood's latest biopic J. Edgar, we delve into the personal life of one of the most powerful and enigmatic figures of the 20th century. We are shown pieces of a man who was scared, confused, and extremely intelligent. He knew how to cater to the media, but his personal life was shrouded in secrecy. It could be argued that J. Edgar himself wasn't quite sure of who he was.
Leonardo DiCaprio stars as Hoover. We see him evolve from a young upstart in the US Justice Department to the head of the FBI. DiCaprio portrays a man of man faults, though not entirely through his own doing. He overcame a speech impediment, grew up virtually without a father, and had difficulty expressing himself socially and sexually. Through DiCaprio's performance, we see just that, a man with a head on his shoulders, only confiding in those few people he trusted.
In his inner circle was Helen Gandy (Naoimi Watts), his personal secretary and keeper of Hoover's private files. Her commitment to Hoover knew no bounds. His right hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), was, on paper, not the right person to become Hoover's 2nd in command, but Hoover saw something in Tolson that made him feel comfortable. From what we see on film, Tolson was more than a friend, more than a partner. He had no title for Hoover. He was invaluable.
The center of Hoover's world, however, was his mother Annie (Judi Dench). A stern yet loving woman, she knew what Hoover needed to be successful. Her approval meant so much to him, and the thought of letting her down was unfathomable. That would wreak havoc on his private life throughout his life.
Hoover's appointment as head of the FBI would last for nearly half a decade. In that time he saw our country through several wars, the "red scare," gangsters, and a presidential assassination. To compile his ever major decision would make for a great documentary series, but to compress it all into a movie under 2 1/2 hours, Eastwood utilizes recent Oscar winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk) to pen the script. What Black does is paint a picture of Hoover not as the head of the FBI, but as a man whose image was so out of whack that he himself had trouble distinguishing fact from fiction.
The film constructed in a way that we are told the story of Hoover's life through Hoover's own words, not from a general point of view. What makes this so effective is that we aren't sure of how certain events actually transpired, making the story, and in effect history, somewhat clouded, much like the image of Hoover himself.
This image of Hoover has been dissected and speculated for years. Was he a homosexual? What secrets did he take to the grave? Was he involved in any conspiracies? These questions are touched upon, but never fully answered. What we are left with is a portrait of a man left unfinished, much like the painting of Washington we see several times throughout the film. Like the painting, Hoover is a man incomplete. That painting is a reminder to him that even though he is incomplete he can still make a difference.
Some of the strengths of the film are also its weaknesses. The story itself if fascinating, but it tends to drag on. It reminded me of The Good Shepherd. A really good story with great characters based on true events, just nothing extraordinary. The acting too is well done but, for me at least, I had a hard time not seeing Leonardo DiCaprio as Hoover, especially with the makeup. Part of it, especially with DiCaprio, is his voice. He has such a unique way of speaking and he has trouble disguising it. His character also reminded me of his performance in The Aviator.
The acting on the whole, especially Hammer and Dench (I expect nods for both and DiCaprio as well), is well above average. Eastwood always manages to extract prime performances from his actors, including when he is acting. Eastwood also continues his work behind the scenes by composing the score, his seventh feature length scoring composition. Like his other composition, there's a heavy, moody, jazzy undertone. He doesn't overpower us with large orchestral compositions. Instead he utilizes strings, piano, and a few horns to accent the images.