Directed by Clint Eastwood. Starring Leonardo DiCaprio, Armie Hammer, Naomi Watts, Josh Lucas, Judi Dench 12A cert, general release, 137 min
Clint Eastwood, Leonardo DiCaprio co offer a considered take on the hated, controversial founder of the FBI, writes DONALD CLARKE
DOES THIS engaging, problematic study of J Edgar Hoover, first director of the FBI, bring us any closer to understanding one of America’s most elusive personalities? Only slightly. There are hints at his political leanings. Subtle inclinations suggest we had him wrong all along. But, after a fairly tidy 137 minutes, we still remain unsure exactly what goes on behind Clint Eastwood’s narrow eyes.
Early rumours suggested that the director had softened Dustin Lance Black’s screenplay and removed the references to Hoover’s presumed homosexuality.
This now looks like so much hogwash. Played with furrowed intensity by an able Leonardo DiCaprio, Hoover emerges as a mess of paranoia, self-delusion and spiteful fury. Still, we shouldn’t see this as evidence that Eastwood has been a lefty all along. It would take a director (as well as writer) of monstrous perversity to turn this thug into the hero of his own film.
An Oscar-winner for Milk, Black has woven an impressive tapestry of formative experience and professional triumphs. J Edgarfeatures the odd burst of action. Little spurts of intrigue litter every scene. But the film is most notable for its careful, subtle investigation of the ways sexual repression can poison lives. Hoover never exactly comes across as a victim of society. One can, however, imagine this
J Edgar,if born in a less punitive era, developing into somebody you wouldn’t cross the street to avoid.
The film bounces Hoover between three influential personalities. Naomi Watts is glacial as Helen Gandy, Hoover’s secretary for half a century. Judi Dench turns the old bigot’s mother into a monster of passive aggression. And, confirming his status as nuanced beefcake, Armie Hammer takes on the crucial role of Clyde Tolson, Hoover’s assistant and very, veryclose personal friend.
As the film winds its way through the 20th century – we begin in 1919 and end with the unravelling of Richard Nixon – various other significant personalities do make appearances. Josh Lucas offers a believably patrician take on Charles Lindbergh, the kidnapping of whose baby offered the FBI an early challenge. Robert Kennedy and Dwight Eisenhower fail to reverse Hoover’s grip on the nation. But the film never strays too far from that key triumvirate. These are, it seems, the only people with any power to restrain the protagonist’s rampaging paranoia.
It would have been easy (and fun) to depict this man obsessed with the private peccadilloes of others as the dress-wearing screamer of legend. But Black takes a less bludgeoning approach. We see the protagonist trying desperately to launch himself into heterosexual affairs and repeatedly being dragged back to his equivocal relationship with Tolson. The film gradually evolves into a stealthy study of sexual hypocrisy in mid-century America.
It would have been nice to get a bit more on the communist witch-hunts and the personal relationships between director and successive presidents, but Black’s approach does grant the story impressive sociological girth.
It hardly needs to be said that Eastwood, the least flashy of directors, steers clear of split- screen, CGI spaceships and gratuitous over-cranking. Employing a palate that ranges from brown to brownish, Tom Stern, Clint’s regular cinematographer, presents a version of the past stuck somewhere between Edward Hopper and Universal horror. Nostalgia and menace make surprisingly comfortable bedfellows.
There are glaring, rampaging flaws. DiCaprio’s glamour adds engaging colour to the early sequences (the urge to cast Philip Seymour Hoffman must have been close to overwhelming), but, trapped with that nipper’s face, he still can’t quite convince as a middle-aged man. The geriatric make-up is extraordinarily terrible: poor Hammer ends up looking like he’s lost a fight with a deranged sandblaster.
J Edgarremains, however, an impressive slice of middle-brow demystification. We still need such things.