Through the lens of the investigation into the disappearance of the Lindberg baby, the film looks at the career, fears and personal life of J. Edgar Hoover – one of the most powerful, controversial and mysterious figures of 20th century America.
Milk writer, Dustin Lance Black has returned to the screen with an intimate study of J. Edgar Hoover; the Head of the FBI and a man that held secrets that could have destroyed many lives. Director Clint Eastwood returns to more heavy weight material after the sentimental affair that was Hereafter. There is no doubt that J. Edgar Hoover was one of the most enigmatic men of the last century; his fears leaked over into his personal life, and he was dogged with rumours that he was a closeted homosexual for most of his life.
Leonardo DiCaprio has made a name for himself in recent years from playing characters whose lives are set in the 1920s and 1930s, so it is no surprise that he signed on to play Hoover. He captures the sound and look of Hoover, and gives a strong performance; the type we have come to expect from him. In fact, DiCaprio carries the film, for the most part, and it is a good job he does; his supporting cast are surprisingly uninspired.
Armie Hammer impressed audiences with his portrayal of the Winklevoss twins in The Social Network, but his acting skills are put to the test when playing Clyde Tolson – Hoover’s lifelong companion and confidant – especially when playing the character towards the end of his life. Hammer’s performance moves from nuanced and subtle to over the top hamminess. This is not helped by the fact that the make up effects leave him looking as though he is hiding behind a mask (or suffering from horrific burns), rather than accentuating and aging his face. Naomi Watts is given little screen time as Helen Gandy – Hoover’s long time secretary – and Judi Dench is given even less, as the autocratic mother who refused to let her son be who he actually was.
The idea for the film is an interesting one but, as we saw recently with The Iron lady, the film tries to focus on the lead character’s personal life and motivations and allows the events for which they are known slide to the background. The Lindberg baby was a famous case at the time – the kidnapping of Charles Lindberg Jr, the son of a famous aviator – and the film is told through the consequences this case had on both Hoover and the FBI as a whole.
In essence, J. Edgar bites off more than it can chew, and the story that we are told – the story that Hoover himself is telling various agents who are chronicling his life – turns out to be Hoover’s version of the truth, rather than the facts of the events. This does give us a glimpse into the character – a man who liked to embellish the truth give himself credit for situations that he was not involved in – but this leads to a muddled, non-linear and confusing narrative. Eastwood puts paid to these claims, but only at the end of the film, when the audience has accepted the truth they are being told as fact.
In all, J. Edgar is a wonderful vessel for DiCaprio – even if his accent does veer to Boston from time to time – but the rest of the cast struggle through misdirection and over the top make up. There is an interesting story in there somewhere, but the facts of the time – that Hoover was a Freemason and that he used secrets he gathered to control his friends and enemies alike – are skimmed over in favour of trying to capture the essence of the man, which leaves the film confused and confusing. The script gives DiCaprio a chance to shine, but this is ultimately all it is – the Leonardo DiCaprio show.