Well I’m back in the good old USA – so what could be more American than to take in the Clint Eastwood directed bio-film about J. Edgar Hoover. Unsurprisingly the film is entitled J. Edgar. Eastwood’s skills in directing a film are, as usual, evident. But despite the fine script by Dustin Lance Black, and a superb performance by Leonardo DiCaprio, I was less than thrilled with the film.
I think that the film is physically dark, depressing, and dull. The chiaroscuro effects are stylish but when you add in the somberness of the subject, you might come away saying that the film lacks light as well as lightness. Granted – Hoover is no easy subject. As the long time Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, Hoover dominated the American political scene from the mid 1920’s until his death in 1972 while still on the job.
He was feared, and detested but he was good at what he did. This is not to say that he was honest, or played fair, or kept to a strict and righteous code of ethics that people could call equitable. In fact, Hoover was tyrannical, and a bit of monster. He molded the F.B.I. into a spiffy and polished unit at the cost of individuality. A man with a mustache is summarily fired because of his facial hair, and homosexuals were not found in the institutional corridors.
J. Edgar himself was a power-seeking man who was also an enigma. He dealt in secrets – those that he could uncover about criminals, radicals, and communists which could lead to their prosecution and incarceration. deportation, or their outright demise. He dealt in secrets that he could use to mold the country into what he thought it should be. We watch as Hoover basically blackmailed his boss United States Attorney General Robert Kennedy by threatening to expose President JFK’s affair with an East German woman. Before that he had dirt on Eleanor Roosevelt. Hoover also tried to blackmail Martin Luther King into turning down the Nobel Peace Prize.
He got the radical Emma Goldman deported even though she was married to a US citizen. He took credit for arrests of criminals that he never took part in. He abused his agents by making sure that every one of the FBI agents were kept away from the national spotlight even if their careers merited it.
Finally there was Hoover’s biggest secrets that were at the center of his personal life. Eastwood meets these head on then seems to back away. Hoover basically hired Clyde Tolson based on his looks – and the two were inseparable for most of their adult lives. We never see anything more than some hand holding and Eastwood and Black basically leave it to the viewers to read between the visual lines, or to make assumptions that are strongly hinted at but never confirmed beyond Hoover naming Tolson as his Number Two man at the top of the FBI food chain and Hoover’s entire estate was left to Tolson. So whatever their personal reality was, Eastwood and company did not choose to add it into the film.
Hoover was petty, mean spirited, ambitious, power-hungry, a bit of a Momma’s boy, and his tactics often went outside of the law making him someone who would break the law to arrest law breakers.
Eastwood and Black have delivered J. Edgar with a familiar format of an older man dictating his memoirs to a series of writers with the ensuing flash blacks. We begin in 1919 with the bombing of the home of the Attorney General of the time, and end with Hoover’s death alone on the floor of his art museum like bedroom.
Before the news is even released to the news media, we see paranoid President Richard Nixon marshalling his henchman and saying – “Seal off his office, seal off his home. Find those files. I want those fucking confidential files.”
The format has us going back and forth from the older Hoover, to the younger and driven Hoover with Leonardo DiCaprio nailing both roles. Kudos must be given to the makeup artists who did an absolutely astonishing job with DiCaprio’s Hoover. But somehow they did a lousy job with Armie Hammer as the older and faltering Clyde Tolson. Naomi Watts (below) is along for the full ride as J. Edgar’s personal secretary, Helen Gandy. She doesn’t have much of role – I mean how to do you portray ‘loyalty’ as an actress?
Judi Dench portrays J. Edgar’s mother and she was as domineering as his Mom as he was as the FBI Director. She wasn’t a monster though she appears to be the most major motivating factor in Hoover becoming the monster that he was.
My overall impression was that the film was dull – you knew the players Nixon, RFK, MLK and you knew their outcomes. Eastwood did peel back the curtains to reveal visually the Hoover that we had only read about – but the film was inert. It lacked actions, highlights, and even DiCaprio couldn’t make Hoover, the man, appealing. But they weren’t trying to make him appealing. What DiCaprio, Eastwood, and Black did achieve was to show us that the institution called J. Edgar Hoover did in fact have humanity – however flawed it was – he was still a person.
But he was a person who passed from our lives nearly 40 years ago. In one sense he is still relevant, as a historical figure who made a huge impact. But from the other side of that same perspective – today’s seniors 65+ years of age and older, will have an interest in this film because they lived through a part of Hoover’s life with great awareness of him, if not exact knowledge. Younger folks may come in with an opinion that says: So what or who cares?
Amazon.com has a list of the 10 Best Biography Movies – Shindler’s List, Lawrence of Arabia, Gandhi, Amadeus, Raging Bull, Patton, Bonnie & Clyde, Goodfellas, Capote, and Malcolm X, this film is not going to crack into that list or replace any of those films. While many critics are applauding this film with very good to excellent reviews – I’m not going there. This one wasn’t even as good as Eastwood’s Invictus, and in my view J. Edgar will go down as a decent technical achievement but as a film that will leave audiences unmoved.
Read all of my film reviews, and articles about Art & Travel here: The Arts