From the trailer J. Edgar looks like an insightful journey through a tumultuous period in American history, with a narrative that winds its way through a patchwork of significant cultural events. Unfortunately, the film in its entirety, does not deliver. Instead Clint Eastwood’s latest movie is a plodding, confused biopic of the man who is responsible for crafting one of the worlds most elite criminal investigation organisations and simultaneously, undermining everything it stood for by using it as his own personal political sledgehammer.
On paper, the story is fascinating and perfectly suited to a prime-time HBO drama that has the runtime and serial capabilities to dwell upon the revolutionary production of the FBI, and fully excavate the ambiguous personal life of its founder and Director. Eastwood’s production however, at 137 minutes long, bravely attempts to cover the sprawling career and personal life of Hoover but fails to keep hold of the narrative, and when it does, often has little time to fully examine events or characters, thus leaving us disconnected from their impact on the wider society. Much of the fault lies in the decision to examine the story from two chronological points, Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a young and fiery patriotic zealot in the early thirties, opposite a heavily made-up DiCaprio, as a Hoover approaching the end of his life. The crusty, obnoxious Hoover is introduced to us as he relates the story of his life to a string of junior agents in an attempt to rewrite his position in history as an unappreciated hero rather than the ambiguous villain he was in danger of becoming. His narration is heavily biased, and self-aggrandising and so much of the story we see played out by young Hoover is skewed or simply a complete fabrication. As if we weren’t lacking in time already, the film is forced to replay many of the events in a bid to address the lies in Hoover’s dictation and undermine the character, which simply means we end up with two different versions of sometimes, insignificant plot points.
We understand that Hoover is a lying grandstander on a power trip, but the film could have added significantly more weight by exposing and exploring his personal flirtation with the boundaries of law, something that he chose to bend or break at will. Instead, this side to his ‘villainy’ is reduced to a mere line, “Isn’t that…illegal?”, uttered by a (smirking) Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer), his faithful second in command and the object of speculation with regards to Hoover’s sexual orientation. However, his career with the FBI skims along the surface, gathering small bits of fact and fiction that the audience is largely left to disentangle themselves.
Hoover’s personal life, just like his political life, is fraught with ambivalence. Son to an overbearing mother (Judi Dench), there are insinuations of repressed homosexual desires within Hoover, that are most noticeable in the presence of his loyal companion, the aforementioned Tolson. Here we have a real chance for some intoxicating drama, but the film decides to err on the side of caution and play safe. The two men are rarely apart on screen, yet rather than creating a pervasive, sexually tense atmosphere between the two, the film decided to drop in brief and largely uninteresting scenes in order to remind us that there may be some doubt over Hoover’s sexuality. In all fairness, it is the sexual angle that provokes the most dramatic interplay in a single scene. A young Hoover, tentatively voices his thoughts on marriage to a girl he’s been seeing, Tolson, in a jealous rage lashes out and a fight ensues. It is only ended by bloody and passionate kiss, though throughHoover’s eyes and subsequent reaction, the film still positions him as straight.
So with a narrative that oscillates between young and old, career and personal and most importantly, fact and fiction there is little time to really see something of substance develop. It is a shame because there is very little chance for the actors involved to flesh out a character, despite the fact the film intends to play out their entire lives. Naomi Watts, plays Helen Gandy, the brief love interest of the young Hoover. Unfortunately she has an entirely uninspiring role, with no motivation other than her job. Even though she may have played a pivotal role safe-guarding secrets in the real world, it’s entirely because of her unremarkable nature and position that she was so good at it, something that doesn’t translate well to a dramatic film of this calibre. DiCaprio is excellent, but mostly shines as the idealistic and zealous young man who first set up the bureau. As he becomes older he is weighed down by paranoia, caution and a truck-load of make-up. Repressed in speech and soul DiCaprio has little room to continue the passion of the early scenes right through to the end. Oscar-contender? I hope not, but a commendable job.
Unfortunately, this really isn’t a Clint Eastwood film. Without knowing who directed it, I would have attributed it to an unknown, perhaps a graduate from the school of The History Channel or some such avenue. It is a remarkably average film, that tells the story it has to, albeit lacking in clarity or dynamism. It may hold more significance to an American audience, but that still does not make it a great film. If it cannot translate such a universal story (FBI specifically aside) then it has failed.