by Tim Ross
J. Edgar Hoover is one of the most intriguing figures of 20th-century American history, so a biopic about the founder of the FBI starring Leonardo DiCaprio in the title role and Clint Eastwood directing is sure to awaken curiosity in history buffs and Dicaprio fans alike.
In the case of “J. Edgar,” viewers may exit the theater with as much curiosity as when they entered, although it may be curiosity over some of the choices made by Eastwood and the screenwriters in telling Hoover’s story.
Edgar almost single-handedly built the FBI thanks to a paranoid mentor and his personal paranoia regarding communism and the erosion of American values. The taciturn Hoover is played with strength and purpose by DiCaprio with a solid supporting cast including Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s brief paramour and longtime secretary; Armie Hammer as his confidante and perhaps lover and Judi Dench as his quietly oppressive mother.
Eastwood keeps the film’s focus as narrow as Hoover’s vision. Other characters come and go, but the film is really about Hoover’s relationship with these three people and their influence on his life’s work. On the other hand, Eastwood is curiously benign when it comes to telling Hoover’s story. In “J. Edgar,” the controversial rumors surrounding Hoover’s sexuality are treated with kid gloves.
Along the way, we do learn many interesting tidbits, such as the fact that John Edgar Hoover settled on the name J. Edgar so he could open a new credit account at a clothing store. His mother was as singular in her ideology about communism and security as her son, indeed he likely embraced these ideals to please her as much as his personal beliefs. He kept a file on everyone who presented a challenge, including presidents and their wives, and most likely extorted anyone who became a threat. And he took an injection of “vitamins” weekly toward the end of his life.
On the technical side, DiCaprio’s transformation into the older version of his character is well done, but Hammer’s is far from believable and Watts’ is somewhere in the middle. Despite these inconsistencies, it’s a beautifully made film, as one expects from Eastwood, but it has less punch than other subjects he’s explored.
Eastwood seems content to present more questions about Hoover than answers and perhaps that’s okay, but history buffs are likely to be underwhelmed and those just curious about Hoover may not learn anything deeply compelling. He’s a central figure of the 20th century and it’s less interesting to see his impact now than even 10 years ago at the height of American paranoia and a new age of the invasion of our privacy.
Grade: 3 out of 4
MPAA Rating: R for brief strong language
Cast: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Judi Dench
Studio: Warner Bros. Pictures