In the Mind of ‘J. Edgar’

Courtesy of Warner Bros.

Love him or hate him, J. Edgar Hoover is one of the most important American government figures in nearly the past century. As director of the FBI for 47 years, his actions and policies helped build the bureau into the advanced and sophisticated agency it is today, though they weren’t always legal or popular. Despite seeking the limelight during his career, he kept his personal life guarded, which explains the variety of rumors and theories about him that have risen since his death.

The biopic “J. Edgar,” directed by Clint Eastwood, spans over five decades as it explores Hoover’s rise to power, his tenure and his relationships. Whereas the man himself is an utterly fascinating person, the film’s story sputters along and is never really mesmerizing.

The film opens in the early 1970s, where Hoover (Leonardo Dicaprio) begins to talk about his tenure at the agency to an agent, who in turn types out a biography that reflects Hoover’s side of the events during his lifetime. Starting with the 1919-1920 Palmer Raids, Hoover progresses into the ’20s and ’30s until the ’60s, detailing the main events in which he was involved and the adversaries he had to face.

When watching “J. Edgar,” the first noticeable thing about its story is the nonlinear narrative structure.  The story shifts between the ’70s and whatever era that Hoover is telling his biographer about. In addition, he also deals with events that are occurring during his present time, like his failing health and President Nixon’s inauguration. This constant scuttling back and forth results in muddled storytelling that is guaranteed to confuse any viewer, and the emotional impact of any event is often cut short as the audience is introduced to a different sequence.

While the film is certainly watchable, it’s difficult to be engrossed by it. Individual events portrayed in the film like the Palmer Raids and the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh Jr. are compelling on their own, but this level of mesmerization never stays afloat for the film’s entire duration (which clocks in at a long two hours and 17 minutes) and thus leads to humdrum pacing. Again, this is arguably due to the story’s lack of organization.

What’s frustrating about the film is how it brings up certain issues but never brings them to a satisfying close. The film straddles certain points, like the scale of government surveillance and the power that Hoover had over some presidents (thanks to some damning blackmail material), yet never develops them, so they remain recurring motifs rather than key themes.

Those who have long been fascinated with Hoover will no doubt be interested in the portrayal of his personal life, as it has often been theorized that he was a closeted homosexual, with longtime associate Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) being his lover. Though such assumptions are inconclusive, the film does portray the two of them in a chaste homosexual relationship. In some respects, it’s fair to say that “J. Edgar” is a love story. Though it isn’t the film’s main focus, it does develop and becomes very moving towards the end.

Without a doubt, Leonardo Dicaprio’s performance as the titular character is the film’s trump card. In public, he maintains an authoritative presence, which is sensed both in his tone and the way he carries himself, and delivers orations with hair-raising capability. In his most intimate scenes, he deftly strips Hoover’s soul bare as his insecurities and worries get the better of him.

Though Armie Hammer is at first utilized to display his charm and handsome looks, he settles into his character with ease and handles him well. He is at his best when he allows his emotions to overwhelm him, and his breakdown in the middle of the film is quite riveting.

Naomi Watts and Judi Dench have the biggest secondary roles (after Hammer, of course) as Hoover’s loyal secretary Helen Gandy and mother Anne Marie respectively, but they are severely underutilized, though Dench has the better opportunity to expose her character’s personality and philosophy and does a solid job at that.

The film’s second best aspect is the period detail and look. Eastwood’s typical dark color palate and lighting methods are very effective, especially when the film is portraying the ’20s and ’30s, where the images resemble black-and-white photographs. Equally impressive are the costumes; the suits and ties that the men wear progressively evolve in style.

As the film progresses over nearly half a century, the more makeup that Dicaprio, Hammer and Watts wear. By the time they are all old, the outcomes are decidedly mixed. Watts’ makeup is the most realistic, and while Dicaprio’s is at first jarring, it’s eventually easy to overlook (that is, until his bloated abdomen is shown at the end). Hammer, on the other hand, is terribly unlucky; his makeup makes him look like a horrid albino alien.

Eastwood’s latest directorial effort attempts to be a captivating biopic of an intriguing character, but barely scrapes by overall. Its disorganized and lacking story inflicts more harm than good to itself, but Dicaprio’s powerhouse performance and the film’s magnificent period detail buoy “J. Edgar” enough to make it a watchable picture at best.

Rating: 3 out of 5