J. Edgar (2011)
“The Most Powerful Man in the World”
Director: Clint Eastwood
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts
Synopsis: J. Edgar Hoover, powerful head of the F.B.I. for nearly 50 years, looks back on his professional and personal life.
J. Edgar, Clint Eastwood’s biopic of the legendary FBI chief, is a movie about secrets, the burden they place on their keepers, and the power they bestow upon their procurers. Hoover was a man who thrived on secrets; he built an empire upon them, made judicious use of them to maintain a position of stability in a constantly shifting political landscape – and hid his own so well that even Dustin Lance Black’s earnest script must surely be constructed largely on conjecture.
The movie employs a flashback structure to tell Hoover’s (Leonard DiCaprio) tale – a device which, while understandable, never really works. Hoover relates the key moments of his career to a writer (Ed Westwick) essentially so that the public will understand the contribution he and his organisation made towards national security over a half-century – although we later learn that much of what Hoover has told the writer (and which we have seen on screen) is fundamentally untrue. Strangely, Black abandons this framework at pivotal moments to provide us with insights into Hoover’s personal life which include his alleged transvestism – and his complex relationship with his right-hand man, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). Incidents covered include the kidnapping of Lindbergh’s baby, Hoover’s failed attempt to discredit Martin Luther King, and his difficult relationship with the Kennedys, but too many other major moments in Hoover‘s career receive just a few brief seconds of screen time.
A story like Hoover’s, which covers a half-century filled with criminal and political intrigue, really deserves a longer format than a feature film. A TV mini-series seems like the obvious answer, although one can’t really see Di Caprio and Eastwood signing up to such a medium. Either way, watching Eastwood’s version is like skimming through War and Peace and stopping to read every thirtieth page. While he does a good job of building a convincing study of a man and what made him tick, the fact is that Hoover was an obsessively secretive man whose private life remained a closed book to all but a privileged few (and even ’few’ might be a generous estimate). So, while Black’s moulding of a believable and complex character is often compelling, there’s always a niggling doubt about what is fact and what came from the writer’s imagination. Nevertheless, Black is to be commended for managing to walk a fairly non-judgmental line.
As usual, DiCaprio is superb in the lead role. In fact, given the buttoned-down nature of the man he is portraying, it’s easy to miss just how good he really is. Armie Hammer is a little bland in the role of Hoover’s loyal sidekick who is at least able to acknowledge the homosexuality that Hoover is incapable of accepting in himself – the result of a devastating conversation he has on the subject with his mother (Judi Dench). But that’s perhaps not the fault of the actor; it’s Hoover’s movie, and there’s little time for Tolson’s story to be developed beyond what’s necessary to communicate his importance to Hoover. Both actors are called upon to age fifty years during the movie, and while they try hard to convince, they’re not helped by some truly abysmal make-up.
If there is such a thing as a J. Edgar Hoover fan, they’re going to feel a little disappointed by Eastwood’s movie, even though it tries hard to provide the audience with a measured and intelligent portrait of the man. However, we’re all moulded and changed by our experiences which means that, as we’re only given a snapshot view of many of the incidents in Hoover’s life, we get only an incomplete picture of the man.