J. Edgar Hoover was a colossus of the twentieth century, a hugely influential figure in American politics yet, with his private life fiercely protected by those closest too him, John Edgar Hoover remains an enigma. All we know, or think we know, is speculation, rumour and gossip born in equal measure from the reverence of those who adored his achievements and derision of those who despised his methods.
It’s because of this that Clint Eastwood, too liberal to celebrate and too conservative to deride, finds himself scratching his head and unsure which direction to take his behemoth of a bio pic. Certainly he brings the sensitive touch he perfected in Gran Torino, hinting at Hoover’s alleged latent homosexuality without descending into mouth-frothing Oliver Stone style conspiracy theories, but he also skips merrily over the more serious allegations which haunt Hoover’s legacy; the secret files, mafia connections and blackmail of successive American Presidents.
The resulting character sketch does little to add flesh to the ghost of the America’s most famous lawman. Leonardo DiCaprio shows flashes of his early brilliance in the title role but is restrained by a performance which is more imitation than interpretation, giving him little chance to explore the motivation of a man who doggedly clung to power for nearly fifty years. The art direction is detailed and convincing, seamlessly shifting through the film’s chronology, but the heavy prosthetic work, which takes DiCaprio and his supporting cast through the generations, detracts and at times restrains the emotional response an audience so desperately needs to really understand Hoover’s relationships and psyche.
This is, though, a worthwhile effort. Eastwood makes good use of flashbacks to tell Hoover’s story from cradle to grave and Dustin Lance Black’s (Milk) screenplay may struggle with the lack of historical source material but is sharp with dialogue that crackles from the screen. The rest of the cast, in particular Armie Hammer (The Social Network) playing Hoover’s second in command and ‘closest friend’ Clyde Tolson, manage to engage the audience and even eke some sympathy for a man history has deemed unlikeable. It is through Hammer we are allowed just a brief glimpse of the fragility of the man behind the FBI badge, unfortunately it just leaves us wanting more.
Ultimately if you want to discover J.Edgar Hoover you will gain just as much from a quick read of his Wikipedia entry. We are left unsure, undecided and faintly disturbed by this unsavoury but admirable law enforcement leviathan and the credits roll leaving more questions than answers.
Beautifully set and lovingly shot, Eastwood does a creditable job in tough circumstances. There is no intention here to rehabilitate Hoover but there isn’t enough to understand him either. Perhaps that’s testament to J. Edgar’s legendarily awkward relationship with Hollywood, or just a fitting tribute to a man who spent a lifetime building a legacy only to order it destroyed upon his death.