I went in to this film with a few preconceived notions. The first was that I would probably enjoy it because it was directed by Clint Eastwood. I find his work behind the camera much more engaging than his time in front of it. The second was that even though I knew very little about J. Edgar Hoover the man, I knew that A. He basically created the FBI and B. He probably was a cross dresser. These two things together led me to believe the film would be a slam dunk for my enjoyment and most likely Oscar contention. J. Edgar is indeed a good film, but it falls short of my lofty expectations.
Leonardo DiCaprio plays Hoover himself, and he does it exceedingly well. This is his story through and through. There’s only a little of the story of the FBI and how it came to be, to which Hoover was integral there is no doubt, but he is not the whole story. That was one of MY problems with the film. I emphasize my because it’s not a flaw, merely a storytelling choice. The plot details Hoover’s humble beginnings working for the government and follows him all the way through his rise to fame and power to the head of the FBI. Knowing not much about Hoover from a historical perspective I can’t say how accurate the film is, but I would say he is depicted not in the best of lights. He’s shown as being an arrogant, grudge holding, extremely paranoid man who holds those around him to almost impossibly high standards.
The most fascinating part of the movie is Hoover’s relationship with his number two man at the FBI, Clyde Tolson (played by Armie Hammer, most famously from The Social Network). Hoover is attracted to Tolson from the start, and there’s an odd sexual tension that permeates every scene the two share together. Hammer shines in his difficult role, as both he and DiCaprio have to switch between professional relationship, friendship, and possible romantic relationship between the two of them, often all three in one scene. Both of the actors give fine performances and make us believe that below they’re mostly calm surfaces there’s some strong emotions. I also give both men credit for performing well even in heavy, borderline silly makeup to make them look old. The film flips back and forth between younger and older Hoover often. The earlier scenes are stronger by far. More interesting, as Hoover isn’t quite yet a totally paranoid curmudgeon, and the actors seem much more comfortable sans their looking old makeup.
The rest of the cast features some big name actors with not a ton to do. Judi Dench plays Hoover’s mom Anne Marie, who does a good job of showing that she loves her son and would do anything for him….as long as acts in ways that she deems appropriate. In the fact the film portrays a lot of Hoover’s quirks and insecurities as relating back to his mother. Naomi Watts plays Helen Gandy, who after turning down Hoover’s awkward advances near the start of the film, agrees to become his secretary. What ends up happening is she becomes one of his most trusted confidantes, second only to Tolson. It’s unclear as to why Gandy believes so much in Hoover. It’s clear she does but I would have liked to have witnessed more of how their relationship reached the point it did.
The biggest problem I had with the film was how excruciatingly slow it was. With a run time at 137 minutes the film overstays its welcome. I’m not one to look down on dramas or criticize a film because it has no action, but this film suffered for it. I found myself bored at points. Yes, I realize that fighting for funding is an issue this newly formed FBI faces, I got it the first time. The third scene in which Hoover tries to deal with the problem served no purpose. Perhaps all of this would be more interesting if I had lived through the events depicted but the movie was too long for subject matter it was dealing with. As it stands, I found myself checking the clock a bit too much in the latter half of the movie.
I know I sound harsh on J. Edgar. I just expected better. Eastwood and DiCaprio in a historical drama should have been a slam dunk, but more than anything it was the script that keeps this film from being great. It’s still good. DiCaprio delivers another strong performance (although at this point is there a movie he’s NOT good in?) and while I don’t think he deserves an Oscar, there will probably be talk of one. Armie Hammer is the other standout and his performance will no doubt catapult him into the upper echelon of young actors. J. Edgar is worth seeing for the acting or if you’re one that finds Hoover himself fascinating. I respect what Eastwood was trying to do here, but I feel this is a missed opportunity to make something great.