Directed by Clint Eastwood.
2011. Rated R, 137 minutes.
The life and times of the famed first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover (DiCaprio). He’s reciting his memoirs to various bureau agents serving as typists. His recollections start in 1920, or thereabouts, a short while before he would get the job he literally kept for the rest of his life. He tells his story in grand fashion, sure to highlight the bureau’s successes along the way. Of course, he’s also sure to claim credit for them, whether deserved or not. If it were up to him, this movie would be an unabashed puff piece, a love letter to both the organization he loves and to himself.
Alas, it’s up to director Clint Eastwood. Since that’s the case, Hoover’s memories are spliced with flashbacks to things the lawman would likely never speak of. There are two main subjects explored. First is his blatantly Oedipal relationship with his mother, played by the always awesome Judi Dench. Second is the relationship he carried on with Clyde Tolson (Hammer), the man he hired to be the FBI’s assistant director despite dubious qualifications. The two are portrayed as having a friendship with a homosexual slant, if not a full blown romance. That’s because whether or not their interactions are strictly platonic or not is a murkier issue. If we are to believe the film, there is hand-holding and come-hither looks exchanged over the years, but nothing more.
Leonardo DiCaprio does an excellent job showing us a man who strains to repress his nature and masks his insecurities with a rigidly formal persona and shameless bullying of anyone he could, including the various Presidents of the United States he served under. This makes him a bellowing contradiction. He’s a man dedicated to bringing the nation’s criminals to justice yet totally unethical in his efforts to keep his job. He rabidly protects the sanctity of America yet seemed to detest freedom of speech. DiCaprio ably puts these complexities front and center.
Still, the performance isn’t quite what it could be. Part of this is no fault of the actor’s. The makeup betrays him and does the same even more egregiously to Hammer. Whenever either is shown as an old man, which is quite often, they look distractingly bad. The other night I caught a glimpse of what is perhaps Eddie Murphy’s last great comedy, Coming to America. In it, Murphy and buddy Arsenio Hall play something like a dozen characters between them. Even though the movie is over twenty years old, the makeup jobs still look good. In fact, they’re outstanding on several and very good on all but one, the lady in the nightclub that Hall plays. However, if you’ve seen it, you may agree it wasn’t supposed to look believable for that scene. Here, DiCaprio and Hammer are supposed to be believable. They’re supposed to represent the two men getting older. Sadly, they look deformed rather than aged. They are too plainly buried beneath pounds of immobile, seemingly hardened rubber that’s been glued to their faces. It’s hard to buy into the illusion we’re watching gentlemen in their twilight years when they look as if they’re struggling to move their lips beneath the weight of their prosthetics.
Another issue is that the movie seems to dislike its protagonist. Thankfully, this keeps it from being an exercise in hero worship. However, it may go too far in the other direction. The effect is it feels like it is less interested in informing us than it is in embarrassing Hoover. We’re never sure why even the people closest to him like him. It seems a miracle that only one person appears happy when he dies.
As biopics go, J. Edgar is a mixed bag. It wants to expose him, but is frustratingly vague about certain aspects of his life. Good things that he’s done, most notably a centralized finger printing system, are downplayed as mere strokes of his ego. The impact of all the advancements in law enforcement under his watch is hard to gauge. So is the stuff the movie seems to want to tell us. It’s entertaining in spots but never captivates us beyond how bad the characters look.