J. Edgar Hoover worked tirelessly to maintain an image of power, fame and significance in the 48 years he served the FBI.
Since his death, his legacy has been tarnished, if not forgotten, with allegations he was not as pivotal to the FBI as he appeared, that he held confidential information over politicians and public figures as a form of blackmail and that he was a homosexual who occasionally wore women’s clothes.
Clint Eastwood’s “J. Edgar,” along with Leonardo DiCaprio in the eponymous role, dons an equally inflated presence and renders itself just as unmemorable.
Granted, “J. Edgar” is a film that deeply understands the man. It views Hoover’s life as a constant performance, one marred by social hang-ups and insecurities fostered by his mother (Judi Dench). And as far as biopics go, Dustin Lance Black (“Milk”) identically molds the screenplay to Hoover’s personality.
We see in Hoover an intentional bluntness, a constantly exaggerated sense of urgency and a near tendency toward obsessive-compulsive behavior, and the film follows suit, despite the fact these are not admirable qualities.
Black gives us a laundry list of a history lesson, and Eastwood directs them as overly patriotic and significant chapters of a political icon. It builds up a feeling of importance precisely because Hoover did to achieve all he felt was necessary for his country.
Similarly, DiCaprio gives a bold performance, commanding every scene with his precise and confident delivery.
But DiCaprio is never not performing. If he does immerse himself into the character, he constantly places Hoover on a soapbox, always preaching to the choir the weight of his words and gravity of his statements.
Both DiCaprio and “J. Edgar” resonated in the same way: not without complexity, but utterly hollow.
And yet for all the film’s politicking it never veers into as deep of melodrama as much of Eastwood’s oeuvre does, for better or worse. “J. Edgar” retains the polished, low light filtered sheen that many of his films share, and it basks an elegant gloss over the period costumes and wonderful aging makeup on DiCaprio, Armie Hammer and Naomi Watts.
Given the film’s performances and aesthetic style, “J. Edgar” has an undeniable presence, but it works so hard to maintain it, the reputation is ruined in the process.
2 ½ stars