There’s a beautiful fleeting moment midway through J. Edgar where Leonardo Di Caprio’s stern bureau man finally relaxes and lets go. Leo’s Hoover is sitting on a couch in a hotel room relaxing with long-time confidant and colleague Clyde, played by The Social Network‘s Armie Hammer – “I’m 6’5″, 220 lbs. and there are two of me!”. Hoover and Clyde are alone and he finally sees fit to let his guard down and embrace the repressed homosexuality he’s fought for years. It’s a silly moment where he plays with some flowers and cracks a few smiles. The moment lasts about ten seconds before normal order is resumed and things get serious again. And sadly it’s a rare moment of humour and lightness in Clint Eastwood’s latest directorial effort.
We know very little about J. Edgar Hoover. In terms of his private life, it’s pretty much common knowledge that he was a mummy’s boy who liked wearing dresses who chose to live a closeted homosexual life for the duration of his life. This assumed “chastity” was all in the name of his career. But outside of this it’s hard to get a handle on the man.
But you’ll find there are a lot less questions over his professional life. Between 1924 and 1972 Hoover was internationally renowned as the second most powerful man in America in his role as head of the Bureau of Investigation, which evolved into what we know as the F.B.I. He was a voice in the ear of eight different US presidents and his infamous “secret files” meant none of them could do anything to move him on before his death.
OK, so an unarguable statement – Leonardo Di Caprio is the biggest star in Hollywood. I’ve mentioned before about how there aren’t many actors, male or female, who manage to find that balance between box-office results and artistic credibility. Christian Bale and Leonardo Di Caprio are about the closest we get these days. Leo doesn’t show up in capers or comedies and only tackles work deemed worthwhile and important. But the only real smile I can remember from J. Edgar was that moment on the couch I mentioned in the opening paragraph. The rest of the time it’s more of that cold icy stare that we saw in Inception, Shutter Island, and Revolutionary Road. The last time I remember him letting himself run free was in Catch Me If You Can, which was nine years ago. He does have Baz Luhrmann’s Great Gatsby adaptation and Tarantino’s Django Unchained lined up for next year so here’s hoping he’ll loosen up and surprise us with some laughs and abandon.
Opposite DiCaprio is Arnie Hammer who is brilliant as Clyde Tolson, the F.B.I.’s Associate Director. We may know ever less about him than we do Hoover, but the fact is he was the man who inherited Hoover’s estate, received the U.S. flag from his coffin and went on to be buried a few yards from Hoover in the Congressional cemetery. So I guess we are asked to draw our own conclusions. The early days of their friendship are well handled by screen-writer Dustin Lance Black (Milk) but the jumping back and forth from past to present day through the age-old device of “let’s-write-my-memoir-and-crossfade-back-to-days-gone-by” means it’s hard to really get invested in the evolution of their (non)relationship. And I won’t even mention the make-up which missed the mark by about a quarter-century.
I’ve never had a problem with Clint Eastwood doing the music for his own films, but here you wonder whether a little more emotion and gravitas could have been added if he’d ditched the piano and hired a Thomas Newman or Howard Shore to score the film. The film is also really washed out and drained of any colour, which worked well for Changeling and the Iwo Jima/Flags of our Fathers films, but Clint’s gotta realise the past doesn’t have to be so desaturated!
Despite all the flaws there’s still plenty to be cheery about. Judi Dench as Mrs. Hoover is great as always and getting an insight into specific cases that were integral to the formation of the F.B.I. – 30’s gangster wars, the Lindbergh kidnapping, John Dillinger – is great but there’s just too much in here to really get behind it all. I’m not advocating turning this into a sprawling four hour biopic, but a more structured and focused timeline would have served it well.
Clint Eastwood / Dustin Lance Black / Starring: Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Judi Dench / 137 min / Biography, Drama / Release: 11 November 2011 (US/Canada), 20 January 2011 (Irl/UK)