Clint Eastwood is anything but your typical Hollywood icon. A living legend, Eastwood is an intimidating actor, an intelligent filmmaker and he plays a mean jazz piano. His filmography as a director is populated by very literal, raw depictions of human suffering and the relationships that save or condemn us. His latest project, J. Edgar, capitalizes on those themes and fits nicely in his oeuvre, but doesn’t really challenge Eastwood as a director.
The film is a tremendous undertaking, anchored by an impressively well-researched and strong screenplay by Dustin Lance Black (Milk). As the elderly J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) dictates a memoir to a series of young staffers, we witness the experiences that shaped him as he rose to the position of Director of the agency he essentially created: the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Along the way, we meet his personal secretary/confidant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and his close friend and Number Two, Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Hoover, as depicted in the film, was a man driven by paranoia and fear. As a young man in the Bureau of Investigation in Washington, D.C., he was terrified that the Communists would take over America. As an old man, he believed that ideas like civil rights would erode fundamental American values. Most disturbing was the fact that Hoover had no qualms about using illegal means, such as wiretapping and blackmail, to protect his country. However, he also understood the importance of forensic evidence and clamored for fingerprinting databases long before it was accepted as a real science.
J. Edgar shares much with last year’s The Social Network, which starred Hammer. Both films follow the constructs of the biopic, but in the end acknowledge that, in fact, there is no way to really know what happened. J. Edgar is told from the perspective of Hoover himself, a known manipulator, so we cannot legitimately believe every word he says. The brilliance of Black’s script is in recognizing that much of what is shown is surmised from the extensive research he performed.
Black attempts to understand, but not explain, why Hoover was the way he was. Clearly, his relationship with Tolson is the subject of much speculation. If the two men were in fact lovers and not just associates, it would make sense why Tolson would endure the brutality Hoover could sometimes dish out. As a script, the relationship works and serves the idea that Hoover’s inner conflicts fueled his outward persona.
DiCaprio is surprisingly good in the film. This is by far his most daring role to date because his youthful good looks make it hard to forget you’re watching Leonardo DiCaprio. Even in The Aviator, it felt like watching Leonardo DiCaprio pretend to be Howard Hughes as opposed to a real portrayal. In J. Edgar, though, he is able to convincingly play Hoover at many different times in his life. Eastwood focuses much attention on DiCaprio’s eyes which burn with the passion Hoover must have once felt.
Hammer is also quite good as Tolson. From the moment of their first interaction, it is clear Tolson will be the only man who can handle Hoover. Hammer gives an incredibly confident and cool performance that is in stark contrast to DiCaprio’s rage-fueled Hoover. Though he does stumble at times (notably in a hotel room argument with DiCaprio), Hammer is perfectly cast in the role.
The fact that Eastwood was willing to take on the life of J. Edgar Hoover, one of the most controversial and enigmatic personalities in American history, speaks to his passion for the project. Eastwood fills the film with heavy lighting and shadows, constantly obscuring who Hoover really is. Unfortunately, Eastwood seems more concerned with the color palette and visuals and less with telling the story. The film meanders often, lingering too long on unnecessary scenes or interactions. Eastwood’s films have typically been very sparse, so it’s strange to see him here with an excess of story.
J. Edgar is rated R and runs 137 minutes.