Although snubbed in the Oscar nominations, Leonardo DiCaprio’s performance as the controversial FBI head J. Edgar Hoover is nothing short of magnificent. The film, directed by Clint Eastwood, is sadly a patchy and often turgid recount of the successes and failings of much-hated but revered man who spent over 40 years trying to keep America safe.
The film is at its best when it attempts to explore Hoover’s private life. Although much of Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay seems to be based on rumour and supposition, the portrayal of Hoover’s homosexuality is sensitive and heartbreaking. It is widely believed Hoover was indeed gay, and the film depicts him struggling to come to terms with the love he feels for Bureau deputy and close friend Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
Judi Dench gives a chilling performance as his controlling homophobic mother. The film’s most memorable and devastating moment is when she tells her son she would rather he was dead than homosexual. The scene serves as a chilling reminder of how the bigotry of the past must have ruined so many lives.
The depiction of Hoover’s professional life isn’t as well handled. Black uses a similar format he employed in his 2009 biopic Milk, where the subject relates his experiences of the past, remembering (and sometimes misremembering) details and incidences. Some excellent make-up work successfully transforms Hoover, his secretary Miss Gandy (Naomi Watts) and Tolson into older versions of their characters, but the retrospective format doesn’t completely work. It feels as if we are only getting snippets of the full story, a problem the film shares with The Iron Lady, another biographical picture which sacrifices coherence in favour of style.
This isn’t Clint Eastwood at his worst (anything would be an improvement after his awful previous picture Hereafter), but J. Edgar is interesting and infuriating in equal measures, and fails to get under the skin of its subject in a way that would justify the long running-time leisurely pace.
J. Edgar (2011), directed by Clint Eastwood, is distributed in the UK by Warner Bros. Pictures, Certificate 15.