AFI FEST Review: Unfocused ‘J. Edgar’ Doesn’t Do Justice to An American Icon

By  · Published on November 4th, 2011

In Clint Eastwood’s J. Edgar, the director once again returns to his cinematic bread and butter with a large-scale historical epic, this time focusing on an American institution and an American icon. As J. Edgar Hoover, Leonardo DiCaprio attempts to navigate the personal and professional life of America’s first Director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation, a man bent on uncovering the secrets and deceits of others, even as he too viciously guarded his own perceived defections.

Hoover was a man obsessed with big ideas and even bigger ideals – especially the concepts legacies, notoriety, heroism, and adoration (particularly of the public variety), but J. Edgar is at its best when it sticks to the smaller moments of the man’s big life. Despite predictably fine and focused details like historically accurate (and gorgeous) sets, costumes, and props, J. Edgar skimps on the big framework, unable and unwilling to scale back on its story, leaving most of the film feeling somehow both bloated and empty.

Hoover’s life is not necessarily the type fit for the feature-length cinematic treatment, with his career in the FBI alone spanning thirty-seven years and six Presidents. Paired with a personal life rife with speculation, and Eastwood and screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s attempts to synthesize the Hoover’s life story down to a tidy-ish two-hour runtime are certainly admirable, but ultimately wrong-headed. Instead of paying particular focus to just one portion of Hoover’s life and career, the film seeks to cover nearly his entire period with the bureau – kicking off with his initial appointment to the Bureau of Investigation and his work growing and establishing what would become the FBI in the 1920s and 30s, before jumping ahead to his later life and career during the Kennedy and Nixon years.

Eastwood and Black attempt to slide between the time periods, using a storytelling conceit (the older Hoover tells FBI tales to young agents tasked with compiling an “Untitled FBI Story”) to join the older Hoover to the younger and to draw connections between the different periods of his life, but the transitions are never quite seamless, and even visual tricks that Eastwood employs (Hoover and his deputy Clyde Tolson step on to an elevator in their elder state, but when the doors slide open, they are their younger selves) never feel organic or easy. The bulk of the aesthetic of J. Edgar is similarly off, all muted colors and poorly-chosen close-ups, with the odd bit of newsreel collage thrown in to quickly gloss over historical happenings that impact Hoover and his mental state.

Eastwood and Black do pay some attention to some of Hoover’s biggest career milestones, however, including his dedication to forensic advancement (especially a centralized system of finger-printing), his struggles to get the FBI the respect and funding he felt it needed and deserved, and a case that haunted him for years – the kidnapping of Charles Lindbergh’s baby. While Hoover’s most notorious works – that of his spying on potential threats to the United States of America and his keeping of copious “private files” on important individuals – are also present in the film, Eastwood frames them up in an almost heroic fashion, casting Hoover as a dedicated patriot bent on doing the best for his country, a man who lived and died by rigid ideals. Those who believe that, at best, Hoover abused his power and, at worst, broke the law repeatedly, will likely not be pleased with the sometimes too-sunny light Eastwood casts him in.

The subject of Hoover’s personal life has been a topic of speculation for many years, thanks to the lingering rumor that Hoover was homosexual and that Tolson was his longtime lover. Eastwood and Black approach the issue sensitively, portraying Hoover and Tolson as trusted and (sometimes) affectionate allies and partners. The nature of their relationship is not all subtext in J. Edgar, however, with the pair clearly engaged in an affection that goes far beyond the professional, though it remains open for interpretation how that was ultimately expressed between the men.

While star Leonardo DiCaprio will surely earn the bulk of the praise for his transformative performance (the handsome young actor made to mimic the somewhat common-looking Hoover, all inky eyes and bulldog mouth spouting Hoover’s trademark fast-talk) and all the set dressing that makes his work here feel as if it should be perceived as epic and accomplished, it’s Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson who turns in the finest performance. Whereas other characters frequently feel one-dimensional (particularly the supporting roles that belong to Judi Dench as Hoover’s hovering mother and Naomi Watts as his one-time ladyfriend-turned-dedicated-secretary), Tolson is the only character in the entire film who feels crafted from a real human being. Tolson’s loyalty to Hoover and his affection for the man are palatable on the screen, and when intense emotion pushes Tolson to react in the sort of messy way that Hoover himself would never have allowed himself to, J. Edgar suddenly bursts with a humanity not previously present. Tolson humanizes J. Edgar the man and J. Edgar the movie, a feat that no one else seems capable of doing.