Writer: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer
Running time: 137mins
The lowdown: Clint Eastwood returns to 20th century American history once more for this polished bio-pic of J. Edgar Hoover, the man who practically created the FBI and presided over it for forty eight years; outlasted eight American presidents and whose passion for justice saw him introduce forensic science into criminal investigations. Eastwood, Milk screenwriter Dustin Lance Black and star Leonardo DiCaprio don’t shy away from Hoover’s power-hungry ambition, blackmailing politicians at all levels with his notorious muck-raking dossiers, nor speculation of homosexuality and cross-dressing that continues to fascinate historians to this day.
The full verdict: After the head-scratching oddness of Hereafter, director Clint Eastwood seems on firmer ground with J. Edgar. Like Eastwood’s most famous screen incarnation, Dirty Harry, Hoover was a committed lawman firmly on the right wing who didn’t allow such trivialities as due process to get in the way of enforcing justice.
Unfortunate then that the film ultimately emerges as a muddled dramatisation of the beginning of Hoover’s career and its end, built around a framing device of the aged nosey parker recounting his glory years to junior G-men for self-serving memoir purposes.
Keeping J. Edgar afloat is Leonardo DiCaprio’s lead performance, capturing the drive, paranoia, charm, ambition, guilt and twitchiness of the mercurial G-Man who hung out with movie stars, saw commie conspiracy everywhere and was not above firing agents for getting public adoration he craved.
Elsewhere, timelines shift confusingly (and without the aid of onscreen title cards) from 1919 to the early 70s and the film adds nothing new to the revelation that Martin Luther King and JFK liked to play around and the FBI were keeping tabs on them for evidence of communist ties and blackmail purposes.
Eastwood and writer Black are on surer footing in earlier scenes depicting the Bolshevik Bombings of 1919 and 1920 when anarchists targeted key lawmakers and instilled in the young Hoover a lifelong hatred of communism that permitted the use of illegal wiretaps and strong-arm law enforcement.
The film also captivates in revealing Hoover’s use of the Lindbergh baby kidnapping to bring federal laws into place, the imperiled infant subplot recalling his excellent Changeling.
Simmering below all this Department of Justice intrigue is Hoover’s much debated sexuality, here speculated as homosexual but unconsummated with his lifelong right-hand man Clyde Tolson (The Social Network’s Armie Hammer giving a great performance, at times behind very dodgy old age make-up).
DiCaprio is aided by a solid supporting cast including Judi Dench as his domineering, terrifying mother (some cod Freudianism positing her death led to his cross-dressing), Josh Lucas, and Naomi Watts as Hoover’s lifelong secretary, the reason for her devotion presumably left on the cutting room floor.
Not without interest and peppered with arresting moments, but hopefully this won’t mark the last time Clint steps behind the camera.
This review first appeared on skymovies.com on Jan 18th 2012