Film Review: ‘J. Edgar’

After the misguided, ethereal mess that was 2010’s Hereafter, it is almost incomprehensible to think that acclaimed American director Clint Eastwood could ever plummet to the same deplorable depths. However, with new film J. Edgar (2011) – a biopic of the first director of the FBI, J. Edgar Hoover, with Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role – the veteran filmmaker once again disappoints, presenting us with a flat, misjudged and long-winded portrait of a much-maligned, highly secretive American icon.

Eastwood’s film spans Hoover’s entire career of nearly 50 years, during which time he rose to become arguably the most powerful man in America. As head of the newly-formed Federal Bureau of Investigation – a position he proudly held through eight presidents and three wars – Hoover waged war against threats both real and perceived, foreign and domestic, frequently bending the Bureau’s own rules and laws of conduct in order to achieve his goals. The exploitation of secret information was one of Hoover’s primary methods of exerting authority, yet Eastwood exposes a private life full of unspoken desires and impulses, most significantly those pertaining to his relationship with mother Anna Marie (Judi Dench), secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) and right hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).

DiCaprio’s Hoover is dislikeable from the offset – a stunted, all-American mummy’s boy more interested in devising intricate filing systems than gaining experience in the field. Clumsy romantic relations with his attractive secretary Ms. Gandy are ultimately fruitless, and it isn’t until the introduction of Hammer’s Tolson that Eastwood’s laborious character study shows any sign of life.

As widely publicised prior to release, Eastwood’s J. Edgar attempts to explore Hoover and Tolson’s relationship, both inside and outside of FBI HQ. Hoover remains as maladroit in his advances towards Tolson as he is with Gandy, and Eastwood himself fails to ignite any form of attraction that may have existed between the two men. An awkward kiss scene seems intended to fire controversy, yet ultimately feels as clunky as the film itself, almost completely lacking in any discernible form of sexual tension. DiCaprio’s Hoover is a willing eunuch from beginning to end, and in attempting to explore some of the more ‘unconventional’ aspects of the man’s private life (including a Norman Bates-esque mother complex that climaxes in a bizarre cross-dressing sequence), Eastwood only manages to skim over the surface of Hoover’s jingoistic political convictions.

DiCaprio’s performance is competent yet unspectacular (not a million miles away from his turn as Howard Hughes in Martin Scorsese’s 2004 Oscar-winner The Aviator), yet both him and Hammer struggle to overcome what must surely stand as some of the poorest prosthetics seen in modern cinema. Hammer’s elderly Tolson looks like an extra from Harmony Korine’s Trash Humpers (2009), whilst only DiCaprio’s sprightly eyes add any form of emotion to the ageing Hoover. Political figures of the age are just as two-dimensional, with Christopher Shyer’s Richard Nixon and Jeffrey Donovan’s Robert Kennedy both feeling like wheeled-on talking wax works rather than actual human beings.

Underwhelming performances, a lacklustre script and a pervading sense of drudgery prohibits J. Edgar from ever being truly engaging – this is one biopic that won’t be troubling the big award ceremonies this spring.

Daniel Green