For those of us born after 1972, it is routine to see government directors arrive in a new post, serve their designated appointments, and move on to be replaced by another bureaucrat. However, for those a bit more mature, they will remember the FBI as a place where turnover at the top did not occur. One man, J. Edgar Hoover, molded that organization into the domestic crime fighting force it is today and would react severely towards real and perceived threats to his power, even from multiple Presidents of the United States.
As the subject of Clint Eastwood’s first true biopic, J. Edgar Hoover (Leonardo DiCaprio) is profiled from his beginning at the early form of the Bureau of Investigations, through his rise to power, and finally as an old man clinging and clutching his valuable secrets at his last breath. J. Edgar’s story is mostly told through flashbacks which is the only way one could include all of the important episodes in his history. If it was chronological, there would be too many cuts, jumps, and abrupt time shifts. The flashback angle allows Eastwood to go back and focus on a particular era for 15-20 minutes or so and come back to an old J. Edgar.
Eastwood and screenplay writer Dustin Lance Black do not skimp on the history either. Early on, there is Edgar’s beloved boss Mitchell Palmer (Geoff Pierson) and the rise of the internal Bolshevik threat. The perceived peril of communism and its conniving sympathizers contributes more than anything else to Edgar’s perseverance to raise the FBI’s stature and crime fighting abilities to stem what he says as an aggressive Red Tide. Another flashback later on shows Edgar’s appointment as the Bureau’s interim director, the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, street fights against Depression era bank robbers, and the introduction of his life-long male companion Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer).
The film does not directly take a strong side in Edgar and Tolson’s relationship. That Edgar is most likely a closeted homosexual is a given in the film, but as to whether or not the two work colleagues and daily lunch and dinner companions ever consummate their relationship is strategically avoided. Nobody will ever know so why invent scenes which will throw the film onto another track? Edgar’s long time secretary, Helen Gandy (Naomi Watts), is also around throughout the decades to carry out her boss’s not particularly ethical or legal commandments concerning wiretaps and confidential files. In the background, but certainly not hiding her influence, is Edgar’s mother (Judi Dench). She is far too involved in his personal and professional life, much too emotionally controlling, but none of these traits seems odd to her or Edgar. It is how they prefer it.
The makeup and ageing affects on all three of the central characters (Edgar, Clyde, and Helen) are usually remarkable. Edgar’s eyes appear far too young to be hiding behind extensive layers of liver spots and wrinkly jowls. Armie Hammer is very convincing as a physically challenged stroke victim, but not so much before that and Naomi Watts ages quite gracefully but noticeably sags and shuffles a tad slower than in her younger days.
The lighting is almost a character unto itself. Eastwood does not hide what he is doing at all. Edgar’s face is frequently half dark and half light, especially when he witnesses illegal acts or is weighing difficult decisions. The interior lights are extremely dim because the lamps only light about a foot of space around them and the daytime outside light which streams into Edgar’s office is stale and almost lime green in color giving off an air of ageing and a bygone era.
J. Edgar will appear to history buffs, biopic fans, Eastwood appreciators, admirers of DiCaprio’s fine acting skills, and Dustin Lance Black’s writing aficionados. If the movie patron is seeking action or shoot-em-ups between the FBI and John Dillinger, go back and watch Michael Mann’s Public Enemies. That film is still fresh enough in the public’s mind that J. Edgar wisely sidesteps the re-telling of that particular episode in the FBI’s early years. Instead, settle in for a fascinating and refreshing reminder of many of America’s 20th century criminal and crime-fighting episodes.