The life and times of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the 20th century’s most fascinating and controversial figures, is timidly retraced in director Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, a lumbering and buttoned-up biopic that crams in just about every major moment of Hoover’s life over 60 years yet still fails to shed light on who the man really was. Beset with poor lighting (like most of Eastwood’s 21st century output), some hammy acting, monstrous makeup, lazy screenwriting and a lethargic pace, just about the only thing that saves this film from becoming an outright disaster (and the sole reason to see this movie) is Leonardo DiCaprio’s commendable performance as the legendary first director of the FBI.
Hyped as a major end-of-year Oscar contender from the moment it went into production, Eastwood and company will have to bribe everyone in the Academy if they hope to score anything outside the technical categories because anyone who can slog their way through this bloated bore without checking their watches at least once deserve gold medals for their titanic efforts. Even DiCaprio, whose compelling performance, complete with the accent, tics and his trademark pucker face, will struggle for a nod because of how inept the film is in making its eponymous character worth a damn.
Written by Academy Award-winning screenwriter Dustin Lance Black (Milk), J. Edgar recounts the FBI director’s story by flashing back and forth between the elderly Hoover (DiCaprio) narrating his life story to a couple of “yes men” agents, and his youthful counterpart as an agent in the then Bureau of Investigation. As to be expected, Eastwood and Black spend a bulk of the narrative during this portion of the picture where we follow Edgar’s obsession with creating a centralized method of tracking criminals by using fingerprints, creating social security cards, and bringing in science to assist with investigations.
Black and Eastwood also spend a considerable amount of time on Edgar’s greatest hits such as his quest to find the Communist bombers of the 1910s (interesting) followed by his war against organized crime in the 1920s (he resented agent Melvin Purvis who killed John Dillinger), his role in bringing the FBI to national prominence following the botched Lindbergh kidnapping case in the 1930s (the best part of the film), and his blackmailing of JFK, MLK Jr. and Nixon during his last years.
More significantly, Black and Eastwood attempt to shed light on Edgar’s alleged homosexuality, his relationship with second-in-command Clyde Tolson (a commendable Armie Hammer), secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the cross-dressing rumors, and his domineering mother (a chilly Judi Dench) whose abhorring parenting Black blames a lot of Edgar’s eccentricities for (i.e. paranoia, phobias, sexual repression, and lack of a social life). While there’s a lot in here that’s fodder for a truly fascinating biopic, it’s squandered because of the amount of material Black tries to squeeze into the film’s 2.5 hour runtime. Eventually, you feel as if you’re watching a series of vignettes on Edgar instead of a solid biopic. Black and Eastwood would have been better off if they had focused on one chapter in Edgar’s history – the Lindbergh case for instance. The single era angle has worked wonders in the past for films like Bennett Miller Capote and Tom Hooper’s The King’s Speech, both which coincidently netted their leading men Oscar gold. Hell, Eastwood could have even taken a page from his own book and gone the Invictus route, although the less said about that movie, the better.
This lack of focus is further complicated by Eastwood and Black’s cloudy stance on Edgar himself. Is he the villain or the hero of the picture? On one hand, he’s portrayed as a paranoid, insecure and bullying tyrant who blackmails, wire taps and ruins the lives of others but then they counter that by painting him as a tragic and repressed figure cultivated for terror by his insane mother. The “neither this nor that” routine renders him a rather boring character to spend 2.5 hours with, and thus the whole thing falls flat as an engaging piece of fiction.
Worse off is the way Eastwood handles the “relationship” between Edgar and Tolson. Since their relationship was never proven to be anything more than a platonic one despite the prevalent rumors, Eastwood is reluctant to tackle it wholeheartedly even though Black’s screenplay obviously insinuates that the two were a couple. Hammer’s Tolson even has effeminate characteristics such as his sense of style, penchant for gossip and dreamy eyes (just kidding)! We see the two holding hands and staring longingly at each other but how and why they care for one and another is never given much thought. The result is a quasi-semi-not-really “romance” that culminates with a hilariously over-the-top (not to mention, awkward) bitch fest of a scene with the two men screaming at each other, dodging flying plates, punches and then finally locking lips. Did I mention awkward?
Also in the awkward central category is the shoddy old age makeup on the two men. As the elderly Hoover, DiCaprio resembles a pucker-faced 80-year-old Charles Foster Kane. But he’s not as bad as the old age makeup on Armie Hammer whose elderly Tolson looks like a weird amalgamation between that slithery toxic waste-infested creature at the end of Robocop and the The Elephant Man. On top of that, they plaster his face with more liver spots than freckles on Lindsey Lohan’s face. It’s like a freak show!
Despite Leonardo DiCaprio giving a commanding performance, Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar is a colossal disappointment that rambles through its two-and-a-half-hour runtime, showcasing poor cinematography, terrible makeup and a bore of a screenplay that does nothing to shed light on J. Edgar Hoover.