John Edgar Hoover is an icon of 20th century American history and the father of the world-famous federal bureau of investigation (FBI) and over the 137 minutes of Clint Eastwood’s latest film you get to know him in intimate detail without ever truly knowing him; a strange statement for a biopic. Throughout its running time we see Edgar rise up to be the face of law enforcement in America for 48 years. We see him feared and admired, reviled and revered. Sharing a commonality with other recent biopic, J.Edgar and The Iron Lady share a common application of the framing devices, Eastwood’s film opens with present day Edgar dictating to a series of young writers for his memoirs, broken up through reminiscing over the glory days.
Straight away, two issues present themselves as early as the synopsis. The first and most obtrusive is the make-up used to age-up Leonardo Di Caprio (Edgar) and his number 2 in command, Armie Hammer (Clyde Tolson). The mass of makeup and plastic slapped on their faces makes them look akin to something from the notoriously wonky creature features of the 50s and 60s. This is especially true for Armie Hammer who is served even worse than DiCaprio. These plastic facades undermine the dramatic heft at every opportunity. Similarly the narrative is highly convoluted, darting between the present day (1970s) and his rise to prominence in the 20s and 30s. In jumping back and forth between the decades at whim the film lacks a sense of place and time, as the viewer doesn’t know where they are in the story and its time line.
The narrative interchanges between a sub-standard period police procedural of the famous Lindberg baby case and the world of distrust that met the formative years of the FBI. It’s in these scenes where the film finds it feet in a beautifully realised period detail, from the fashion to the set dressing. Covering all eras of his life, sans his youth, these plot strands are merely two of many and don’t receive the time they deserve, as an all-inclusive tale this era of Edgar Hoover’s life is fascinating and would make for a riveting watch in Eastwood’s hands. Both explicitly and slight it’s here where we observe his obsession with what he sees as alien and a threat to the American ideal, whether that is something as insignificant as personal hobbies or something more all-encompassing like his all-consuming war against communism and his campaign against the civil rights movement, which is only slightly hinted at.
J. Edgar Hoover is a fascinating figure by all rights which makes the question of focus an important one. Why make a biopic of a character whom the depth of his corruption and his disregard for the line between good and bad which only revealed after his death and focus on hearsay and theories on his personal life? His relationship with Clyde Tolson and whether he was gay or not is the subtext that informs the film whether it is through an awkward sequence of scenes with the two characters or the only barometer for the social beliefs of the time in his mother, played by Judi Dench.
Dench in recent years has given the world a succession of small roles with brilliant performances; it would be foolish to expect anything less from the British screen legend. The lead performance from Leonardo DiCaprio is an unexpected variable, for a good few years now he has gone from strength to strength, its only when he has to adopt an accent that he comes unstuck (see blood diamond). His broad accent feels put on and not an intrinsic part of the character, which along with the terrible make up and his scenery chewing is another alienating device. Armie Hammer steals the rug from underneath him with a subtle performance and a surprisingly deft turn as someone far beyond his years.
The sum of these parts is a film that is lacking in consistently, so it becomes boring. Which is a shame because it’s in the climax where the film reaches its zenith, unfortunately after such a long and arduous slog you’d be hard pushed to care. Questions are posed about male pride and legacy and down come the barriers of Edgar’s persona. It almost makes the rest of the film worth it, almost, but not quite.
Clint Eastwood has made some magnificent films, but along with last year’s hereafter all signs are pointing to a lost mojo. An admirable project to undertake and one that has its more failures than successes, J. Edgar is a misjudged slog thanks to unremarkable direction from Eastwood and a misjudged, over-written screenplay by Dustin Lance Black.