rating: ★★★1/2Clint Eastwood’s latest biopic, J. Edgar, narrows in on the life of the first FBI director who led the agency from 1935 to 1972. Starring a beady-eyed Leonardo DiCaprio (who excels in playing these unorthodox characters) one can’t help but form expectations for a bullet-laden historical thriller. However, Eastwood takes an unforeseen direction and guides the film with a top-secret romantic plot that touches on Hoover’s alleged homosexuality.
The story is slightly confusing, as the movie kicks off right in the office of a close-to-retirement-or-death J. Edgar Hoover. Apart from the Elmer Fudd accent, DiCaprio successfully embodies Hoover in both his younger and older days. Through obvious layers of age-inducing foundation, DiCaprio recites the chronology of his life (and disdain for communists) to various typists. Even though including both first- and third-person perspectives, there is an undeniable sense of coherence for the film’s duration — which is only muddled by the lack of detail and excitement.
However, for some incomprehensible reason, the film doesn’t completely delve into Hoover’s personal life or scandalous secrets enough to fully capture us. Either this was done because of the already daunting task of depicting Hoover’s accomplishments and major life events, or simply because it was assumed the audience wouldn’t care about these crucial details or an explicitly homosexual love story. There were many opportunities to elaborate on characters — especially Hoover’s racist, homophobic, doting mother — that could have made the film more engaging. In any case, it would have been helpful to expose more of Hoover’s youth, thus giving some method to the madness that DiCaprio illustrates with ease.
Then again, when has DiCaprio ever not embodied that full-frontal shocking intelligence, which has undoubtedly enhanced his career? While it may just be the actor, it appears that Hoover is the Howard Hughes of the FBI. Watching him robotically explain the importance of keeping tabs on citizens and other Big Brother-esque schemes, the audience gets a glimpse into the mania that wracked Hoover’s brain. It’s both impressive and terrifying.
Even stranger is the lack of events featured between Hoover and his handpicked associate director and rumoured lover, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer.) It’s clear in the movie that Eastwood isn’t afraid of exposing the scandalous escapades of politicians (duly noted: Eleanor Roosevelt’s saucy lesbian affairs) but there aren’t enough scenes where Hoover and Tolson are physically romantic or engage in extensive romantic dialogue.
Despite the movie shying away from the implied amorous relationship between the two, there are a few powerful moments where emotion is purely conveyed. Perhaps this was the intention, so as not to stray from the biographical focus on Hoover’s life. Although this is a noble, privacy-respecting tactic on Eastwood’s part, the movie could have benefited from some form of action.
In addition to the disappointment of potential intimacy, the movie is largely deficient in the violence department. For a story that illustrates Hoover’s involvement in high-profile assassinations, murders and kidnapping, there are depressingly few moments that will leave you on the edge of your seat. Even the foreshadowing of John F. Kennedy’s assassination is hardly remarkable — perhaps something that could have been slightly exaggerated to bring the whole thing to life. There are countless instances throughout the movie with unfulfilled climactic promise.
Thankfully, other elements such as cinematography were spot-on and created the perfect tone for the time period and subject matter. Also, DiCaprio’s realistic emotional responses are authentic and touching, despite the out-of-place, cheesy line “Love is the greatest force on earth.”
Overall, J. Edgar is a convincing story, but only because it’s very safe. Eastwood doesn’t surprise or shock — the alleged homosexual affairs of a closeted Hoover as well as the Lindbergh Trial are monotonous. The one unnerving aspect of the whole movie is the makeup job on an aged Tolson, which was so bizarre that I had to suppress my laughter.