J Edgar - Review
Review by Rob Carnevale
LIKE several recent biopics, Clint Eastwood’s look at the life of J Edgar Hoover doesn’t subscribe to the more conventional approach.
Based on a screenplay from Dustin Lance Black, who previously penned the Oscar-winning Milk, it’s very much an imagined account of the man behind the legend that dares to take a peek behind some of his more intimate history.
It also unfolds from the perspective of Hoover himself, examining his landmark achievements (the creation of a finger printing database and the use of forensic analysis) as well as touching upon some of the cases he oversaw (the hunting down of John Dillinger and the solving of the abduction of Charles Lindbergh’s baby).
But it glosses over some of his more dubious practices despite hinting at the paranoia that motivated many of his ideas and policies.
Perhaps even more crucially it examines his relationship with second-in-command Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) and the largely unspoken romance that existed between the two of them, as well as the effect his domineering mother (Dame Judi Dench) may have had on him. It is during these moments that Black’s screenwriting presence is most keenly felt.
But a final act pullback, engineered by Tolson, also poses more questions than it answers, keeping the enigma that is Hoover intact, while threatening to undermine some of the film’s authority (much in the same way that Abi Morgan’s decision to have Margaret Thatcher reflect on her career while suffering from dementia undermines The Iron Lady).
That said, Eastwood’s film has a lot to admire from the strength of its performances to its attention to period detail and the way in which many of its themes – and Hoover’s views – continue to hold contemporary resonance in a post-9/11 world.
The handling of his sexuality and alleged fondness for cross dressing is also achieved with a great deal of sensitivity. And Hoover himself, while largely sympathetic, is displayed as a flawed individual who is blinded by his own convictions and insecurities.
DiCaprio, for his part, invests him with suitably complex layering so as to make him a consistently intriguing central figure – as bullish as he could be charismatic, and as fixated and driven professionally as he could be insecure and tender privately.
Hammer is also good value, while there’s notable support from Dench and Naomi Watts (as Helen Gandy, his loyal secretary)… in spite of some, at times, ropey prosthetics.
Eastwood, meanwhile, continues to enhance his reputation as a thoughtful, intelligent filmmaker whose early-career maverick tendencies continue to inform his directorial choices. A hard, polarising character like Hoover is a perfect fit for the one-time Dirty Harry, himself a no-nonsense, shoot first kind of lawman.
So, while J Edgar remains flawed and by no means the definitive film on Hoover, or the finest work in Eastwood’s recent directorial body of work, it’s a worthwhile film on several levels that works in spite of its failings.
Running time: 137mins
UK Release Date: January 20, 2012