Clint Eastwood's biopic of J. Edgar Hoover has elements of a good drama, but merely brushes over the various controversies in a suprisingly humdrum narrative. Hoover ran the FBI with an iron fist for over forty years. The film jumps back and forth in time, incorporating the major events and people that influenced Hoover's reign. Leonardo Dicaprio is gunning for an Oscar here with an ebullient performance. He's acting up a storm, but I was not convinced. The make-up artists do a fantastic job of aging him over the years, so the character looks the part. The problem is I still hear and see Dicaprio. Eastwood has been hit or miss in recent years. This latest effort is in line with last year's Hereafter as mediocre at best, and not remotely in the category of Unforgiven, Million Dollar Baby, or Gran Torino.
The film opens in 1919 with Hoover as a young man working in the Department of Justice. Several senators and the attorney general have been firebombed by communists. This incident spurs a lifelong fear and hatred for communism. Hoover, driven by a domineering mother (Judi Dench), targets the movement and is succesful decimating their ranks. He employs machiavellian tactics to achieve his goals at all cost. His quest to root out the commies lands Hoover as the Director of the FBI at twenty-four years old. He employs two stalwarts that will serve him loyally and without question for his entire tenure. The first is his personal secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), the gatekeeper that guarded his activities like a zealot. The second, and most influential, was Clyde Tolson (Arnie Hammer). Tolson would be Hoover's deputy, closest confidant, and possible lover.
Hoover is portrayed as a fastidious narcissist, brilliant in theory but absolutely corrupt with power. The film highlights several relationships that define him, but never takes a solid stance on what was actually happening. The most important is the dynamic between Hoover and Tolson. These men were inseperable. Eating every lunch, dinner, and spending vacations together. Tolson is clearly played as a homosexual who was unrequitedly enamored with Hoover. One of the flaws in J. Edgar is how the office, literally being at work is a focus all the time. Eastwood does show them on vacations, including a penultimate scene, but doesn't really investigate what happened after hours. These guys spent all of their time together. My guess is there wasn't a political will, or maybe firm facts, to show something more provocative outside of work.
Hoover's mother, Annie Hoover, somewhat underplayed in the film by Judi Dench, was the singular person who's acceptance he craved and needed. The film depicts her as the driving force behind his need for power and glory. Initially this works, but I'm not sure it establishes a firm reasoning to his later, more bizarre behavior. Hoover was long rumored to be a cross dresser. Eastwood explores this, and links to the mother's demise, but quite vaguely. This is another - leave it up to the audience to draw their own conclusions issue.
J. Edgar was written by Dustin Lance Black, a superb young screenwriter that won the Oscar last year for Milk. Black gives Dicaprio a lot of dialogue and staging for a muscular performance. What he does not do is take a stand on the more troubling parts of Hoover's life. As stated previously, I believe there was no concrete evidence, so he circ*mstancially explores on screen. Insert the let your audience decide for themselves theory. My problem with this is that you walk away believing Hoover was a homosexual, crossdressing, racist egomaniac. I would have a preferred a more definitive character study as opposed to a surreptitious one.
My final problem with J. Edgar is that I found it to be very boring. This is a fatal flaw considering the fascinating history explored. It's just not an inspired work. The film runs an achingly slow hundred and thirty seven minutes. Almost the entire runtime is Dicaprio, front and center, laboring through dense monolgues. Call it excitement, or pure entertainment value, but it's sadly missing here. Eastwood has a dense character study of an intriguing figure. It just needed to be more definitive and salacious in exposing the darker themes in Hoover's life.