Leonardo DiCaprio stars as the longtime director of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. DiCaprio appears in almost every scene as a flat, empty man who never changes or grows.
The actor seems to empathize little with Hoover. Compare this performance with DiCaprio’s usual stirring characters like Howard Hughes in The Aviator.
This Hoover is as vain and soulless as he is cold and driven. I found it difficult to like, dislike, or feel anything for him.
Lashing out at “enemies”
As Hoover amasses power and extends the Bureau’s reach, he lashes out. He deports anarchist Emma Goldman. He illegally wiretaps civil rights leader Martin Luther King, Jr.
Hoover is floored when he realizes he cannot intimidate King into refusing the Nobel Peace Prize. He justifies his activities as “patriotic.”
Hoover also tangles with then-attorney general Robert F. Kennedy (Jeffrey Donovan), who sees through him and openly despises the FBI director.
Edgar is devoted to his domineering mother (Judi Dench, outstanding), who tells him, “I’d rather have a dead son than a daffodil for a son.”
The other woman in Hoover’s life is his devoted personal secretary Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts in a beautiful, deeply hued performance). In another era, Gandy would have been an FBI agent herself.
In Watts’ best scene, Helen turns down a half-hearted marriage proposal from Edgar. She’s all about work, she tells him.
Personal secretary’s devotion
Unfortunately Watts’ part is so underwritten that we never learn who Gandy really is. It is Gandy who shredded Hoover’s personal files right after he died, shrouding the details of his activities from then-President Richard Nixon and posterity.
The film feels historically true and accurate. It’s a jarring look at the Bureau’s origins. Hoover represents the worst of America here, contrasting with the FBI heroes that fill contemporary movies and television.
Film covers too much ground
J. Edgar underwhelms with its cold, barren treatment of Hoover. Eastwood ranges from present to past, exploring the character’s motives. Yet the film tries to cover too much ground over Hoover’s 50-year government career.
Too much time is spent on the Bureau’s role in the Lindbergh kidnapping case. It would have been more illuminating to explore COINTELPRO, the FBI’s covert action programs against Americans in radical political, civil rights and antiwar groups.
The film shows Hoover pioneering criminal science and fingerprinting.
Hammer plays neglected companion
J. Edgar delves into Hoover’s sexual orientation. Here he prefers men, but hides his appetites even from himself in a time of intolerance.
Armie Hammer plays Hoover’s number two man and longtime friend is Clyde Tolson. Hammer is spot on as the long-suffering, smitten companion.
When Hoover remarks that he’s thinking of proposing to Dorothy Lamour, Tolson goes ballistic and threatens to leave. One furious kiss symbolizes their stilted relationship.
Preserving his legacy
Hoover dictates his memoirs to a series of handsome, young FBI agents in his private office over the years, exaggerating his exploits.
Dustin Lance Black, who won an Original Screenplay Oscar for Milk, penned J. Edgar. Eastwood also composed the score.
Tom Stern’s cinematography, James Murakami’s production design and Deborah Hopper’s costumes are excellent. However, makeup for the aging Hoover and Tolson is heavy handed.
Shadowy Hoover lacks punch
Eastwood crafts a vague, ambiguous story as he interprets history. While unsympathetic, Hoover could have been more interesting. (3 out of 5 stars)
J. Edgar 2011 / R / 2 hours, 17 min
Cast Overview: Leonardo DiCaprio, Naomi Watts, Armie Hammer, Josh Lucas, Jeffrey Donovan, Geoff Pierson, Judi Dench, Ed Westwick
Director: Clint Eastwood
Genre: Biopic, Drama, Period Piece, History