J. Edgar Hoover, the crime-fighter credited with building the FBI into what it is today, gets rough treatment in Warner Bros.’ new biopic J. Edgar. This melodramatic yet lackluster version of Hoover’s life has a laughably eccentric Hoover making snarky comments to his homosexual lover between petty power plays.
Hoover’s life is presented with a healthy dose of literary license. Many of the story elements, Hoover’s homosexuality for instance, are based on rumor and popular theory. Yet those assumed aspects of his life are played up, and end up shadowing the more noteworthy accomplishments of a man who dedicated most of his life to bringing law and order to the country.
Hoover becomes a scheming voyeur with a “little man” complex under screenwriter Dustin Lance Black‘s touch, and in the end that’s what you take away from this film; not what Hoover accomplished, but how ridiculous he was as a repressed homosexual more interested in the cut of his suit and his celebrity status than true justice.
The movie employs a dual narrative structure, switching between time periods in Hoover’s life. It opens with Hoover as an old man, recounting his history with the FBI for a story someone is going to write. The film jumps back in time to when Hoover was a young man just starting out in the Justice Department’s Bureau of Investigation, and then continues to switch between the times as the story unfolds.
The audience gets to watch a neurotic, quirky little man with an obsession for details and justice work his way up through the ranks of the early bureau. Hoover makes up for what he lacks in social graces with his single-mindedness and drive. He envisions a future where a unified bureau of investigation has the authority it needs to go after and prosecute wrong-doers. He also has some new ideas for criminal investigations, including an idea most see as strange about a centralized finger-printing system.
Using the opportunities provided by big historic events like the Lindbergh baby kidnapping and all the communist radical terrorism, Hoover gains power and rallies for laws being passed that increase the bureau’s power and reach. In the 1930s he gained notoriety when he went after famous gangsters and bank robbers, like John Dillinger.
Throughout all of this intense action and drive, Hoover maintained an immaculately dressed person, and lived with his strong-willed mother. He also instituted a strict set of guidelines as far as physical bearing, dress, and actions for agents of the FBI. Filmmakers suggest this was because of his own unhealthy relationship with his mother and an exaggerated fashion sense.
The film also paints a harsh picture of Hoover in office, abusing his position to get agents he personally disliked fired, or posing for celebrity photo ops though he made few actual arrests himself. Add on the strange, almost voyeuristic pleasure he gets from listening to wiretaps and his manipulation of everyone around him to maintain his power and position, and Hoover comes out looking like an ego-maniacal cross-dresser.
I can’t say if Clint Eastwood (Gran Torino), the director of J. Edgar, has something against Hoover but I can say that his movie does the historical and somewhat controversial figure no favors, which wouldn’t be an issue if the film had been superb and told a compelling story. The problem with J. Edgar is that the story wasn’t exciting or well-told, and though Hoover was involved in many hugely famous moments in history, the movie dwells on tedious minutiae and lesser events.
It almost feels like the filmmakers were trying so hard to make Hoover’s life into a melodrama about repressed homosexuality and mother issues, that they lost the incredible historical backdrop and some of the events that could have made the story come to life. J. Edgar thus is strangely melodramatic, while being boring and lacking cohesion.
And the last act drags on criminally long. It’s overly sentimental and dramatic, with swelling mood music and some awkwardly touching scenes between Hoover and his life-long gay love and right-hand man, Clyde Tolson. It also shows a sad man grasping desperately at power and hoping his legacy lives on.
There were a few good things about J. Edgar, and they consisted mainly of the costume and period details. The flashbacks to the early and mid 1900s had an authentic look accented by spot-on costuming and settings. And what looked like subtle lens coloring and lighting gave the historical scenes the feel of antiqued photographs, with almost a sepia tone quality.
Leonardo DiCaprio played the titular role. One expects a certain level of performance from an actor of his experience, but overall I was not blown away by his portrayal of the quirky yet driven Hoover. Maybe he’s getting to the point, as some other older iconic actors have, where all his roles start looking the same; like DiCaprio playing DiCaprio.
Armie Hammer (The Social Network) played Tolson, Hoover’s supposed gay lover. Hammer is a yielding force on screen, but he brought some interest and charisma to a role embarrassingly subverted. Naomi Watts played Helen Gandy, Hoover’s life-long personal secretary, and though her part was small she made the most of it.
Dame Judi Dench was a bright spot in the film, playing Hoover‘s tyrannically strong-willed mother. Dench never fails to entertain, and she plays the imperious female character particularly well.
DiCaprio and co. had to undergo hours of make-up to become their aged selves, and though I’m sure the make-up was painstaking, the effect was almost comical. The “aged” Hoover and friends looked more like people dressed up in old people costumes for Halloween then actual geriatrics. And that they didn’t seem to age their voices was also distracting.
The consistently negative study of Hoover, along with pell-mell story telling and a melodramatic and silly gay romance, made J. Edgar a disappointing film. I’m not an expert on Hoover, but by the end of the movie he came across as simply ridiculous, which seems an anticlimactic and unfortunate treatment of the original “G-man”.
J. Edgar was released on November 11th, 2011