On paper, a biopic of J. Edgar Hoover – founder of the modern Federal Bureau of Investigation and prolific figure in the shaping of the American justice system in the 20th century – starring Leonardo DiCaprio and directed by Clint Eastwood, looks all kinds of fantastic. DiCaprio has more than proven he can handle the weight of big roles, and the meat of strong characters, and Eastwood has carved himself out a career as a highly-respected and competent director with critically and commercially successful films like Million Dollar Baby, Letters from Iwo Jima and Flags of our Fathers. Along with an excellent screenwriter, Dustin Lance Black, most known for the decorated Milk, and a ridiculously impressive supporting cast, Dame Judi Dench and Naomi Watts to name a few, this film was poised to be as good as Eastwood’s best. Sad to say the film doesn’t add up to the sum of its parts.
Right off the bat, before the narrative even had a chance to get under way, the film had problems. DiCaprio’s interpretation of Hoover’s voice was more off putting than encapsulating and had the opposite of the desired affect, hindering rather than facilitating the character. DiCaprio, even on an off day, puts in a fine performance however fails to ever fully convince as Hoover. This is most apparent in the latter days of the story, where the heavy prosthetics combined with the caricatured voice makes the audience all too aware of the medium instead of the man. Armie Hammer, as life long friend, partner and colleague, Clyde Tolson, comes to life and anchors the film with a natural and faultless performance, however even he drowns in the overly-complicated and confusing narrative structure.
Eastwood and Black, in trying to deliver a well-rounded and complete look at the entirety of Hoover’s career, struggle to ground time, context and motivation. The narrative jumps around incomprehensibly, and nothing less than a substantial knowledge of the period would have been enough to follow the plot. The narrative’s non-linear structure meant it was difficult to process and understand the man that was J. Edgar. Touching moments lack weight and historic milestones are lost. Eastwood’s cinematographer captures the period with beautiful consistency, and Eastwood directs with an elegance and sureness that adds heft and visual weight to his character pieces, however, without the contextual and dramatic substance, this becomes superficial praise.
There is much to commend in J. Edgar; costumes, sets, performance, style, however these are difficult to define and appreciate under the heavy fog of problems. Most damningly, the film, even with the huge amount of content, lacks pace. So much so, that at times it was boring. A man as intriguing as Hoover, in a period that defined law and order in the USA, should come shooting out the gates. Eastwood, in trying to cover too much, has created a confused biopic that struggles to pack the punch it should have delivered.