Leonardo DiCaprio as J. Edgar Hoover
Naomi Watts as Helen Gandy
Judi Dench as Annie Hoover
Armie Hammer as Clyde Tolson
Josh Lucas as Charles Lindbergh
Dermot Mulroney as Colonel Schwarzkopf
Zach Grenier as John Condon
Damon Herriman as Bruno Hauptmann
Stephen Root as Arthur Koehler
Denis O’Hare as Albert Osborne
Josh Hamilton as Robert Irwin
Geoff Pierson as Mitchell Palmer
Gunner Wright as Dwight Eisenhower
David A. Cooper as Franklin Roosevelt
Ed Westwick as Agent Smith
Michael Rady as Agent Jones
Kelly Lester as Head Secretary
Dylan Burns as Hoover as a Child
Jack Axelrod as Caminetti
Jessica Hecht as Emma Goldman
Josh Stamberg as Agent Stokes
Christian Clemenson as Inspector Schell
Ken Howard as Harlan Fiske Stone
Scot Carlisle as Agent Williams
Geoff Stults as Raymond Caffrey
Sadie Calvano as Edgar’s Niece
Allen Nabors as Agent Appel
Ryan McPartlin as Lawrence Richey
William Bebow as Mr. Walters
Jeffrey Donovan as Robert Kennedy
Miles Fisher as Agent Garrison
Kahil Dotay as Elmer Irey
Lea Coco as Agent Sisk
Christopher Lee Philips as William
Christopher Shyer as Richard Nixon
Directed by Clint Eastwood
After being appointed to the Bureau of Investigation in 1924, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) developed methods for cataloging fingerprints of potential criminals and using forensic experts to catch them, turning the agency into a crack team of crime fighters which he directed for over 35 years. During this time, Hoover’s personal life was troubled by an overbearing mother whom he lived with (Judi Dench), never getting married and suffering from delusions that led him to blackmailing multiple Presidents with secret files he kept on them.
Clint Eastwood’s astoundingly prolific output as a filmmaker continues unabated with something he hasn’t done since “Bird,” which is an honest to gosh biopic. (“Invictus” doesn’t count because it only showed a moment in Nelson Mandela’s life.)
This time he takes on the life of a controversial government figure whose odd behavior led to all sorts of myths and legends surrounding him, only some of which are covered. The film’s narrative device involves the FBI leader dictating his memoirs to a number of ghost writers, constantly embellishing his place in history. It’s actually a bit worrying when you first hear the accent and delivery DiCaprio is trying to recreate with the character, because the droning voice-over quickly gets tiring and informs us that we’re in for a movie that moves at a snail’s pace. Fortunately, it’s not that hard to adjust to it as we’re pulled into the story of how Hoover first got the idea to institute forensics and keeping crime scenes secured for evidence, and uses his system for cataloging books at the Library of Congress to create a similar way of tracking criminals through their fingerprints.
Much of the film deals with Hoover’s attempt to find the man who kidnapped and murdered Charles Lindbergh’s baby son, and how the drive to solve that case is turned into an obsession. Of course, Hoover’s contributions to fighting crime and Communism is extremely relevant and topical to the times due to the previous regime’s Patriot Act, but it often leaves one wondering where the filmmakers stand on the film’s often convoluted politics. The film never tries very hard to cast Hoover in any sort good light, instead painting a portrait of an unbearable control freak, an unlikable troll who suffers from arrogant delusions of grandeur and a paranoia complex that often makes him ineffective despite his innovative crime-fighting methods. After having his own arrest record impugned, he begins to grandstand and take credit for some of the bigger arrests, including in the memoirs. Even worse is his drive to keep his job by getting dirt on all of his superiors up to the President, which not only makes him dangerous but also makes him come across as sad and pathetic rather than noble. Through it all, DiCaprio shines in giving a performance that soon makes you forget any prior shortcomings of the role, including the cumbersome accent and line delivery, and he’s especially convincing while giving some of Hoover’s most famous speeches.
Hoover’s achievements are filtered through his relationships with three key people: his overbearing mother, played by Dame Judi Dench, his secretary Helen (Naomie Watts) and his right-hand man Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer). It’s the latter that makes for the most interesting storytelling, because they have such a close relationship, spending most of their meals together, something which eventually develops into feelings of actual love, something that Hoover fights against. Hoover’s sexuality and his relationship with Tolson was something that’s often been questioned, but there’s so much conjecture at work here that one wonders if “Milk” screenwriter Dustin Lance Black had his own agenda for emphasizing this, because it feels so oddly shoehorned into the story that it’s hard to take it very seriously. It’s also hard to believe how far Eastwood takes this aspect of the story even if it does make the film far more intriguing than it was up until that point.
Armie Hammer is generally good as the younger incarnation of Tolson, though not quite as convincing when trying to act from underneath layers of prosthetic make-up. Dench is also good as his mother, though it leads to some of the film’s most awkward scenes including a couple of moments that makes you think you’re watching Norman Bates outtakes from “Psycho.” Naomi Watts’ characters seems wasted considering what an important role she’s meant to be playing throughout Hoover’s career.
You’d think Eastwood would have a better handle on historical filmmaking being he lived through most of these times, but J. Edgar suffers from some of the same problems as “Changeling,” except that it never purported to the historic accuracy one might expect from a biopic. While there are a few truly touching moments, Eastwood uses some of his same manipulative tricks to generate emotion including that infernal piano noodling that’s spoiled so much of his recent output.
Even so, the film looks great with regular cinematographer Tom Stern doing some of his finest work in capturing the times with a muted palette. The make-up works sometimes but not others with DiCaprio disappearing into his character more readily than his co-stars, and some of the lighting decisions compliment the extensive make-up better than others.
The Bottom Line:
There is skill and craft to every scene and DiCaprio’s performance is solid, but “J. Edgar” never feels like some of Eastwood’s most focused work, starting out as a dull and lifeless snoozefest and then turning into something far too erratic to be fully embraced.