Despite a valiant attempt to tell Hoover’s story, Eastwood misses the mark
By Tim Pompey 11/17/2011
Directed by Clint Eastwood
Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench
Rated R for brief strong language
2 hrs. 17 mins.
J. Edgar Hoover was a paradox. As the man responsible for the birth of the FBI, he was extremely intelligent and devoted to his work, but also paranoid, ruthless and willing to go beyond the law if anyone dared cross him. For nearly five decades, he ruled over two major federal crime agencies in Washington.
So, I ask, how can one movie sum up a man this complicated? Good question, but that’s the task director Clint Eastwood has taken on — 53 years’ worth of Hoover’s career and personal life.
The film begins in 1919 with Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) as a young man employed at the Justice Department in Washington, D.C. It’s a time when political unrest is rampant and radical communists are waging war against the government.
After a bomb goes off in the home of Attorney General Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson), Hoover rides his bike to the scene and, judging from his steely stare, seems determined to find out who was responsible. Communists, he assumes. For Hoover, it always seemed to be about communists.
Jumping back and forth between early and late Hoover, the film explores his dual personality. Hired at age 29 to whip the young Bureau of Investigations into shape, he was one of the first to organize thousands of fingerprint files into something resembling a database. Later in his career, we see him fall prey to his paranoia about communism — butting heads with Bobby Kennedy and keeping confidential files on “radicals” like Martin Luther King Jr.
The film bears Eastwood’s facile touch as a director — lush music score, a good sense of light and dark to bear out the mood of Hoover, and Eastwood’s curious exploration of unusual human behavior.
Unfortunately, by choosing to cover so much of Hoover’s adult life, Eastwood has limited himself to only touching on some of the man’s idiosyncrasies: brilliant, paranoid, ruthless, socially awkward, law enforcer, law breaker, the list goes on. He also indulges in innuendoes (such as Hoover being gay) that have been endlessly debated but never proven. Finally, he chooses to use Hoover as the narrator of his own story, a device that’s as annoying as a dull toothache.
What’s right about this film is the large and able cast. DiCaprio, thanks to his crack makeup team, bears a striking resemblance to Hoover. Jaw set, eyes intense, he captures Hoover’s intelligence, arrogance and social awkwardness, as well as his misguided devotion to the truth as he perceived it.
But the best performances in this film are provided by his three most loyal supporters. Judi Dench portrays Hoover’s mother, Annie. Dench exudes Annie’s obsessive devotion to her son and brings to light the roots of Hoover’s peculiar behavior.
Then there’s Naomi Watts, who is chilling as Hoover’s longtime personal secretary, Helen Gandy. In makeup, with bloodshot blue eyes, Watts is an enigma as a woman of stout devotion and cold calculation.
Finally, Armie Hammer is remarkable as Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s closest friend. From his first encounter with Hoover to his last years as the assistant director of the F.B.I., Hammer disappears into his character. His final scene with Hoover, in which, physically weakened and shaking from a stroke, he gently scolds him for his willingness to lie, embellish and break the law, is the film’s highlight.
J. Edgar has its moments, especially in portraying the relationships among Hoover, Annie, Gandy and Tolson; but for long stretches, it feels tedious, more like a history lesson than an emotional exploration of Hoover’s life. That’s because Hoover himself is simply too big for this film. Pick a point, pick a story, but don’t try to give me the whole book. Despite Eastwood’s ambitious efforts, that’s a job even more difficult than corralling Hoover’s massive ego.