J. Edgar is a by-the-numbers biopic that’s just never quite as engaging as it should be. Interesting things happen onscreen, but there is an inexplicably empty, sterile feel to the whole affair. This seems surprising considering that J. Edgar Hoover is one of the more polarizing characters in all of American history. As the face of the FBI for decades, he made critical moral decisions and hunted down some of the most notorious criminals of the era. As depicted in the film, he’s a paranoid, accusatory, and often confused man.
The film jumps back and forth as Hoover (DiCaprio) recalls the central investigations of his career for an biographer. His rise to law enforcement stardom came as a result of hard work and dedication, and the bureau grew quickly as he convinced Congress to up the funding. Hoover’s FBI would crack down on numerous celebrity bank robbers (John Dillinger, Machine Gun Kelly, Alvin Karpis, etc.) as well as the man who kidnapped Charles Lindbergh’s son in what was known as “The Crime of the Century.”
This is all fairly engaging material, but Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay keeps getting diverted by Hoover’s alleged homosexuality. Black’s screenplay leaves little doubt that Hoover was gay, with second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Hammer) being his lover. Any student of history knows this about Hoover, but there is a gossipy aspect to the screenplay’s handling of this that seems unseemly. More controversial outlooks of Hoover’s life, including his dislike of Martin Luther King, Jr. and attempted deportation of John Lennon, are either barely touched upon or glossed over completely.
DiCaprio, as usual, is superb in the lead role. Sporting about five pounds of makeup for the “present” scenes, DiCaprio disappears into the character and never looks back. He is authoritative, at times funny, and completely believable. Only a few slips of his accent can be pointed out as faults. His chemistry with Hammer, as pot-boiled as the subplot is, is superb. The two often keep the film afloat, particularly in scenes late in the film when some truths come to light. Nice supporting work is turned in by Naomi Watts as Hoover’s life-long secretary and Judi Dench as his domineering mother.
J. Edgar is not one of Clint Eastwood’s premiere directorial efforts, though the production values are high and he captures the feel of the era well. The understated, piano-driven score (by Eastwood) really adds to the atmosphere of a time when crime ran rampant without any of the technological advances we enjoy today. The screenplay could have used another draft or two, cutting down on the scuttlebutt of Hoover’s private life and taking on more of the controversy of his life. It’s a serviceable film and one that those interested in that era of American history will likely enjoy. It’s just missing the edge that the great biopics not only contain, but revel in.
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures
Length: 137 Minutes
Rating: R for brief strong language.
Theatrical Release: November 9, 2011 (Limited) / November 11, 2011 (Wide)
Directed by: Clint Eastwood
Written by: Dustin Lance Black
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench, Lea Coco