Clint Eastwood is now something of a marvel. More so considering how low he had sunk by the late 80s. No Clint, no! Then Unforgiven came along and he’s been enjoying a resurgence in respectability, reputation and general Hollywood all-purpose legend status ever since. This has translated into some of the finest work of his career: Mystic River, Million Dollar Baby, and The Flags / Letters WWII sister films. Not bad for a septuagenarian. Now eighty-one, this remarkable sustained creative energy continues, but J. Edgar simply does not hit the mark.
With Leo Di Caprio as the infamous titular FBI boss we get a typically committed performance, but nothing that reveals the very real grit of the man he’s portraying. Here was an administrative monarch who wielded bureaucracy to stifle dissent, collect secret dossiers, bug and intimidate. The man who ruled of over the FBI as his own personal fiefdom, from its establishment until his death almost fifty years later. We get the closet homosexuality and (a scene of) cross-dressing but it barely scratches the surface and feels half-baked. Instead we get a broad, uninvolving, and not very rigorous examination of one of the major 20th century US public figures. Now that’s not very satisfying is it?
For starters the picture attempts to cover far too much. Everything is on the table. There’s Edgar as a rookie in the Department of Justice, there’s some lovely interwar era production design and cinematography, now the Depression – wait – here’s the establishment of the FBI – The Lindbergh baby! Bobby Kennedy! Nixon! The movie groans under its own bulk, cycling through events and well-trodden eras without bringing anything new to the table.
Eastwood’s focus throughout keeps coming back to the personal story of two men, Hoover and his long-time friend, companion and right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer – one of the movie’s few stand-outs). Here the movie nearly works. Ignoring the make-up and ageing shenanigans (it’s actually quite well realised) their relationship is given a little more time to breathe. The film is also quite strong on the early years of Hoover’s nascent FBI and the US population’s reluctance to accept their new bureau.
But we’re getting Edgar’s story as told by Edgar. And although Hoover is not always portrayed sympathetically, it is undoubtedly remiss in the balance department. The plot device of him telling his own story to an FBI writer gives rise to interesting questions of narrative reliability, but this is not fully realised. While a suffocating politeness strips any urgency or vitality from the script – does everybody really speak like Downton Abbey auditionees in the upper echelons of FBI power? Overall its soft focus. Watch out for Judi Dench as the onerous mother figure, while Naomi Watts doesn’t get much of a look in as Hoover’s long-time secretary Miss Gandy.
J. Edgar then, hard to fault for design, cinematography, or authenticity, but Hoover is too complex a character for Clint – he’s too straight-up and delivers a movie too plain. Between this and The Iron Lady, 2012 has now had two Biopics of polarising 20th century figures within weeks of each other, neither of which do justice to their subjects…like them or not.