(Dir: Clint Eastwood, 2011)
Since the release of Hereafter it’s become impossible for me to approach any film directed by Clint Eastwood without a degree of wariness. Eastwood is proving to be an incredibly prolific director in these supposed twilight years of his career and has made some recent interesting films (Gran Torino, Changeling), but it seems a by-product of such prolificness is that quality control can fall by the way side. I mention Hereafter as without any exaggeration it’s the worst film I have seen in a good few years. So with this in mind it was with a degree of trepidation I went in to watch Eastwood’s latest effort, J. Edgar, his biopic of the infamous FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover.
Hoover was the man who essentially established the FBI, bringing it to what it is today, as well as being a strong advocate for the use of science as a tool for detecting criminals, such as creating a central database of fingerprints. The film jumps between the key early days of the FBI and Hoover in the 1960’s, particularly in the Kennedy era. Leonardo DiCaprio stars in the title role and puts in an excellent performance. Playing the Director in his formative years he’s believable as a determined young man with a strong ideology and passionate anti-communist agenda, whilst, behind layers of ageing make-up, he convincingly transforms into a 70 year old holding onto his position of office through fear and a desire for control. DiCaprio yet again proves that he's one of the most talented actors working today.
Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts provide solid support as Hoover’s second in command Clyde Tolson and secretary Helen, both of whom have committed themselves to Hoover and the agency for life. Although it's fair to say they fare less well in the ageing make-up stakes, with Hammer particularly looking more and more plastic as the older he gets. Judi Dench also pops up playing Hoover’s mother and she does well in a small role, but these days she does seem to be becoming more of a caricature of herself, as was also the case in My Week With Marilyn.
The film is really well shot with the colour throughout slightly saturated towards colder colours, giving an interesting effect that heightens the believability of the period settings. I was reminded of Eastwood’s Changeling which had a similar look and feel, both of which Tom Stern was the director of photography on. The direction is on the whole pretty decent, there’s nothing too showy and the film is anchored around a standard flashback structure, although it is a slow film and does really drag into the last half hour, which seems to be a result of the story.
The story they decided to tell is my biggest issue with J. Edgar. Hoover appeared to live by the edict that ‘knowledge is power’, and was the king of the wiretap. He is known to have authorised countless illegal recordings of the powerful and famous in compromising situations, which he kept for his own secret files to be used as he required. This seemed to be a way to keep control of his position as Director of the FBI for life, but perhaps it was also to influence societal change (see his hatred of communism or the SCLC), or maybe they were just gathered for his own illicit pleasures? Even if it wasn’t for any of these reasons he was still seemingly a much despised figure, someone that each newly elected President wanted to replace but ultimately the dirt he held on each meant they were too scared to get rid of him. Unfortunately the film doesn’t go into too much detail on this side of things, which I’d argue is the most fascinating aspect of the man and is ripe for far greater exploration. Instead J. Edgar just gives the impression that this was going on in the background whilst primarily focusing on the shaping of the FBI and the importance of the Lindbergh kidnapping to the agency, and also attempting, somewhat unsatisfactorily, to explore the ambiguity of Hoover’s sexuality.
There's nothing particularly wrong with J. Edgar - it’s a well made film covering a fascinating part of American history, with another excellent performance by DiCaprio. It’s just a shame that it’s ultimately a semi-interesting film about a very interesting person.