Setting itself up as the biopic to beat this awards season, J. Edgar follows the life of the titular J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo Dicaprio), widely regarded as one of the most influential Americans of the 20th Century. Starting (chronologically at least) with his beginnings in the Bureau of Investigation in his mid-twenties, it then progresses to his appointment as the first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a position he held until his death by heart attack on May 2nd, 1972.
A controversial figure, Hoover is credited with building the FBI into the task-force it is today and instituting many of the technological advances of the time that we now view as standard, such as a centralized database of fingerprinting; in contrast he is critiqued for using blackmail to stay in power, exceeding the jurisdiction of the Bureau and collecting evidence using illegal methods. Rumours have long circulated that Hoover was homosexual, and this is touched on also, alongside the praise and criticism I’ve mentioned.
Issues are dealt with sensitively and without bias, and where there isn’t a definitive answer, the film doesn’t feel the need to create one. For the vast majority of the film, the nature of Hoover’s relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer, in a career best) is left affectionate but still suitably ambiguous. After things come to head, with the much publicised kiss, again no attempt to label or clarify the issue is made. This sounds like a criticism, but it’s far from it; it’s refreshing to see human relationships dealt with without the broad brush-strokes they normally receive. His relationship with secretary and occasional confidant Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts) is treated similarly. While it’s clear there’s an initial attraction there, again other factors interfere.
It’s a shame that the film wasn’t longer as there are so many areas that could have benefited from more time, but it already clocks in at over two hours. Having so much story and details to tell within the time however makes the film seem more deliberate; the issues raised here are the key issues. Clever directing and a tightly focused script mean that rather than just lumbering through a history lesson, we get an attempt to pin down what defines a man. Unfortunately while the script may be tightly focused on it’s subject, the narrative suffers somewhat. Many supporting characters don’t get a chance to develop, and flashbacks within flashbacks might help understand the character, but make placing many events on a chronological line other than how they relate to the previous event tricky. To his credit, Eastwood senses this and gives earlier scenes a more washed out, monochrome look while using more colour in those scenes closest to the present day. This also works as a metaphor for Hoover’s life and career; as he builds the FBI into what he wants it to be, institutes the changes he wants and gains companionship, his life becomes more complete, compared to the lonely boy at the beginning who works in an office with ideas that go ignored. In contrast, when his mother (a woefully underused Judi Dench) dies, the colours again seem muted and dulled.
Shadows are also used cleverly – while their very presence can be seen as a reference to the nature of much of Hoover’s work, it’s somewhat telling that the only sex scene that takes place is observed through sound and shadows. This is a man who is much more used to listening to sex than participating in it, and displays the voyeuristic nature of his work. Even early on in his career he is seen having spent much of his time recording how others have spent theirs. It seems typical Eastwood to take something simple, and make it a little more unusual. Dicaprio manages to balance these many sides of the man, portraying the many complexities, going from repressed to proud to cantankerous within seconds, often within the same scene. Hammer has less of a range to work with but with what he has he shows he can act on the same level, keeping pace with three-time Oscar nominee Dicaprio, and deserves at least an Oscar nomination.
In short, wonderful performances and simple but polished direction manage to shine despite an occasionally limited and narratively confusing script. This attempts neither to condemn nor praise this controversial figure and thus may manage to alienate both bases, but at it’s core lies a solid movie executed well.