Allow me to begin by saying that I went into J. Edgar completely biased – Clint Eastwood is one of my favorite directors, and I sat down in the theater under the assumption that I was about to experience another masterpiece on par with Unforgiven or Million Dollar Baby. Two hours and seventeen minutes later, as the credits mercifully began to crawl across the screen, I walked out wondering where it had all gone wrong.
The film examines the life J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) beginning with his rise to prominence during the Palmer Raids, and is told mostly in flashbacks as the aging FBI Director paces around his office, dictating his memoirs. We experience several key events in his career, including his involvement in the Lindbergh kidnapping investigation (during which he successfully lobbied to increase the authority of the Bureau) and his attempts to cast himself in a heroic light as the FBI went after Depression-era gangsters such as John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd. The film showcases Hoover’s ever-increasing paranoia and mistrust, leading to the creation of his infamous “private files” and his alleged blackmailing of public figures in order to maintain his position of power.
All of this material works just fine, and delivers a fascinating glimpse into the psyche of one of the most powerful men in history. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said for the sections of the film which deal with Hoover’s private life. The relationship between Hoover and his strict, overbearing mother (Judi Dench) is poorly done – we’re supposed to understand and accept that Hoover’s ongoing fear of rejection and disapproval was instrumental in shaping the man he eventually became, but their lack of screen time together makes the relationship feel hollow and underdeveloped. Likewise, Hoover’s lifelong friendship and alleged homosexual relationship with Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) is handled unsatisfactorily, with the actors sharing enough candlelit dinners and meaningful glances to plant the seeds, but the director abandoning the crop long before it has been harvested.
DiCaprio does an excellent job of maintaining a consistent feel for the character across several time periods, with the best work coming during the man’s later years as he disappears beneath the makeup and prosthetics to reveal the paranoid, unforgiving egomaniac that Hoover eventually became. Hammer is even more brilliant as the fiercely loyal sidekick who remains at his side, and a scene near the end of the film where an exhausted, ailing Tolson finally becomes fed up with his mentor’s lies and manipulation should result in a Best Supporting Actor nod. Dench is criminally underutilized here, and the same can be said for Naomi Watts in the thankless role of Hoover’s personal assistant – both do great work with the material they’re given, but they’re never given enough for the audience to become invested in their characters.
With J. Edgar, Eastwood has crafted a film about one of the most interesting and controversial public figures in history, and by refusing to delve further into the darkest parts of Hoover’s private life, has managed to make the entire experience feel boring and tedious. The film begins to drag almost unbearably in the third act, and could certainly have benefited from sharper edits and a 20-minute reduction in length. J. Edgar is worth seeing just for DiCaprio and Hammer, who turn in performances that will surely result in success during awards season – it’s just a shame that those performances belong in a much better film.
FINAL SCORE: 7/10