John Edgar Hoover is best remembered for two things: a tireless, singular drive to root out suspected radicals from the U.S. populace and a sexual preference politely termed "ambiguous". The former Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigations had been given a previous big screen treatment in 1977's sleazy THE PRIVATE FILES OF J. EDGAR HOOVER, a film few remember (and with very good reason). Director Clint Eastwood's 2011 J. EDGAR attempts a legitimate, high profile "event film" of a certain prestige. There's a fine cast, led by Leonardo DiCaprio as the titular curiosity of a man, a screenplay by Dustin Lance Black, who penned MILK, a triumphant bio of another complex historical figure, and Eastwood himself, who dependably delivers another annual on-time, on-budget, well crafted movie.
The reception was tepid at best. Few critics or viewers were singing any praises. I watched the trailers and was far from encouraged. My reservations were confirmed: this is a sluggish, dour, unfocused scramble of a movie. Surely the life of Hoover was far more interesting than what we're given here?! A rather paranoid individual who amassed a collection of files on many public figures. Comprehensive histories that often included some pretty seamy and potentially career ending details. As with other of his recent films, Eastwood takes events based on fact and produces something devoid of inspiration or fire. CHANGELING and INVICTUS are two other examples, though both are more dramatically sustained and focused than J. EDGAR. Maybe Clint should take more time and even go a little over budget to deliver something better?
The often used "framing device" is but one problem. Throughout the film, J. Edgar is seen in his outer office dictating his memoirs to a young writer, describing his life and the events of the creation of the FBI. He discusses (and we see in flashback) the infamous 1919 bombings by anarchists of the homes of, among others, Attorney General Palmer, Hoover's boss. As the young man is aghast by sloppy, apathetic forensics at the crime scene, J. Edgar is driven to create a centralized system of identification (fingerprinting) and laboratories staffed with specialists who can identify, for example, the mysteries of a plank of wood. This would prove helpful in cracking the kidnapping of the Lindbergh baby case.
J. Edgar surrounds himself with like-minded, one track individuals who aren't so interested in the standard life path of spouse-kids-white-picket-fence. Secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) is first seen as a potential love interest for Hoover (who proposes to her on their first date, inside the Library of Congress), but she's only interested in work, and remains Hoover's trusted administrator until his death. Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is a recently graduated lawyer who at first sees the Bureau as merely good experience, a stepping stone to private practice. He too makes it clear that he's not interested in marriage, and becomes Hoover's top Agent. And.. a bit more....
For all of Hoover's devotion and focus to his work, he worries for his image. We gather from Black's screenplay that J. Edgar was a homosexual, with occasional clues such as when he puts his hand (more than once) over Tolson's. The film makes no bones that Tolson is gay, especially when he throws a fit when his boss wonders aloud if he should go ahead and have a Mrs. Hoover in his life. J. Edgar's mother (Judi Dench), with whom he lives until her death, attempts to squash her son's unorthodox desires at every turn, at one point telling him, "I'd rather have a dead son than a 'daffy' (short for daffodil) son." While rumors of cross dressing abound in J. Edgar bios, Eastwood only allows one scene to this effect - Hoover tries on one of his mother's dresses in front of a mirror.
Most of the key events in J. Edgar's life are covered in J. EDGAR: Lindbergh baby, the hunt for John Dillinger, the Director's attempts to brand Martin Luther King a dangerous radical, the tumult with Richard Nixon (Hoover orders Helen to destroy every document in his infamous files should he die before the President). The later scenes begin a interesting examination/comparison of Nixon and Hoover, with their shared interest in surveillance, "shit lists", and fascinatingly similar flaws, but the film ends before we get an satisfactory essay. Hoover does get to deliver one of the film's best lines around this time, however, referring to another controversial witch hunter, Senator Joseph McCarthy, as an "opportunist."
The idea of a character recalling his or her lifetime has possibilities for a certain poignancy. Recollections informed with wisdom before (and sometimes during) the inevitable mental decline. We listen and wonder what is real, what is fiction, and what is a little of both (we don't know in this movie until the very end). It has worked many times in films, but more often, it causes the whole thing to become a maudlin exercise. For me SAVING PRIVATE RYAN suffered because of this.
Then, there's the make-up department's opportunity to shine, creating a wide age range of facial structures for each character. Sometimes it works (LITTLE BIG MAN), and other times it does not (FOR THE BOYS). This one falls into the latter category. Particularly Tolson's appearance in the 1960s/70s sequences - startlingly bad. Some of the worst prosthetics I've seen since James Caan's pancake job in the aforementioned FOR THE BOYS. How is that someone did not pull Clint over and say, "Um...."?? The make-up in J. EDGAR was distractingly awful enough to be funny, to take me out of the drama, which was already uneven.
It also illuminates that DiCaprio, shown at any age, is just not the right actor for this role, IMO. He's still too boyish. He has some good moments, adjusts his voice fairly convincingly, and overall I believe he is a very good actor, but this was one project on which he should've passed. Who would I have cast? John Goodman would've been a good choice; he has the physicality and the right chops. Just the right air about him. If Trey Wilson were still around, I would've suggested him too.