A secretive and controversial figure throughout his life, J. Edgar Hoover founded the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) in 1935 and remained its director until his death in 1972. During his tenure he revolutionised law enforcement by implementing, amongst many other things, fingerprinting and forensic analysis at crime scenes. However, he has also been accused of abusing his position and compiling information illegally about foreign leaders and those he deemed his enemies. On top of all of this, Hoover’s personal life was just as shady and complex. Hoover lived with his overbearing mother for almost his entire life, has a closeted homosexual and, so the story goes, had a fondness for cross-dressing.
For a probing and expositional cinematic life story, one could not wish for a more fascinating subject than Hoover, and with Leonardo DiCaprio in the lead role, a screenplay by Oscar-winning writer of Milk and the direction of Hollywood icon Clint Eastwood, J.Edgar seemed destined to be the final word on the great man himself, and potentially one of the biggest films of the year. But somewhere in the mix something went terribly wrong, and the film lumbers from one significant event to the next without any real sense of period or, most disappointingly, the man himself.
Problems seem to begin with the film’s script. In his determination not to demonise Hoover for his more unconventional personal life, openly gay writer Dustin Lance Black ends up showing us little more than the rumours we already knew. We witness Hoover’s desperate efforts to inspire the public to get behind figures of law enforcement, rather than the more charismatic gangsters of the time. We see his failed attempt to start a regular family with Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) – who acquiesced to be his assistant but nothing more – and his forbidden relationship with lifelong companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), but we learn little of Hoover’s inner turmoil. Black seems almost too respectful of Hoover’s privacy, and strangely insistent that his many character flaws are all the fault of his mother, Anna Marie (played by Judi Dench).
Perhaps the awkward combination of Eastwood’s rather staid conservative perspective and Black’s strangely defensive take on Hoover’s life allows the real emotional core of the story to fall between the cracks. The non-linear plotting only serves to further confuse and complicate matters, rather than underscoring earlier events with shrewd introspection. That said, the cast is uniformly strong, with Dench, Hammer and DiCaprio all bringing their A Game, only for Leon Smickle’s make-up to bury the performances in a mass of latex in the scenes of Hoover’s later years. One can’t help but feel that Eastwood the director is finally losing his touch. The octogenarian’s last three films have been nothing more than adequate, and disappointingly, J.Edgar can barely be called that. Overlong, incoherent and frustratingly coy, J. Edgar fails to give its subject the thorough investigation the man himself spent his life championing.