J. Edgar was disappointing. I had no expectation of any revelations that might make the title character sympathetic: He was a disturbing and disturbingly powerful man. I had no particular expectation of DiCaprio in the role, largely because my image of Hoover was always in his later years, not in his youth. I suppose what I wanted was a good story well told, and from director Clint Eastwood I had cause to expect that. Unfortunately, the chronologically challenged script by Dustin Lance Black did not cast light on the muddled mystery that was John Edgar Hoover, and Mr. Eastwood didn’t enlighten us either.
There is a poorly constructed and pedestrian framework of a memoir being dictated by an aged Hoover to a series of young FBI agents over the course of…what? A year, a decade? The young men all look alike. Hair short, suits undistinguished, they personified the meaning of the word “Suit” when applied to a Fed. Even the fact that the last one was an unfriendly young black man didn’t inform.
Were these the memoirs of a man or an agency? Was J. Edgar Hoover always bonkers, or only in his later years? Clearly he should have been made to retire at the mandatory age, but the filmmakers wished to imply that all presidents feared Hoover’s secret files and kept him on, when in fact LBJ and Hoover were friends. (By the way, some of us would have considered Hoover opening a secret file on us to be a great honor.)
The film opens in 1919 during the Palmer Raids. These bombings inside the United States by home-grown Bolsheviks clearly show the formation of Hoover’s views. The film moves backwards and forwards, the Twenties, the Thirties, the Sixties and finally 1972. In all this bouncing about, the film clarifies nothing later than the Twenties. It explicates nothing beyond Hoover’s beginnings. Although we see where he came from and where he went, nothing about the main character grabs us.
The actors did good work, including those who don’t get top billing (for instance, Denis O’Hare and Stephen Root as intense scientists taking baby steps to create the first scientific laboratory of the Bureau; Ken Howard as the Attorney General who made J. Edgar the director of the DoJ’s bureau of investigation). As for the more famous characters:
- Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover did fine work as the earnest, righteous young man. As he aged, DiCaprio’s body language was fine, but the excessive makeup was distracting and he occasionally veered toward caricature – or, of course, Hoover could really have been an incoherent hysteric.
- Armie Hammer as Edgar’s lifelong friend/colleague/partner Clyde Tolson had some effective scenes, but much of his performance was marred by even more age makeup than DiCaprio wore, and since Mr. Hammer’s primary charm is in his boyish good looks, this was a shame.
- Naomi Watts as lifelong private secretary Helen Gandy was as detached as Hoover himself. I wondered what went on with Helen (who aged better than her boss), but apparently no one writing or directing the film knew either.
- The great Dame Judi Dench as Annie Hoover, J. Edgar’s mother, was thoroughly dislikeable but even she didn’t stand out from the dark dullness of this film. A cold-hearted woman who doted on and emotionally crippled her son, I should have hated her, but did not. Detachment was the order of the day, it seems. Hoover’s rumored cross-dressing and vaguely homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson was obliquely referenced more as something to show how mean Mrs. Hoover was than to show any depth of emotion in Edgar or Clyde. Certainly neither showed anything resembling courage.
- Jeffrey Donovan as Attorney General Bobby Kennedy was, unusually both for the actor and the character, a bit of a cipher.
- Josh Lucas was not Charles Lindbergh but he looked good in the role.
- Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon was merely profane and had way too much hair.
To sum it up, the film is disjointed, it’s not emotionally involving, and it doesn’t seem to have a point. I’ve even caught myself wondering if the filmmakers didn’t deliberately confound us with switching time frames so we wouldn’t see Nixon come onscreen and say, “Oh thank goodness, it’s almost over.”
~ Molly Matera, signing off before someone opens a file on me.