Little is really known about J. Edgar Hoover. As FBI director, he was the face of law enforcement for over four decades, initiating the national fingerprint data base and supposedly leading investigations that led to the arrests of high-profile criminals such as John Dillinger and the Lindbergh baby kidnapper.
Yet he’s remembered mostly for being an alleged cross dresser. There also are unconfirmed rumors about his relationship with longtime deputy Clyde Tolson, whom he bequeathed his entire estate to. Were they lovers or merely very good friends? And if he was indeed a homosexual, why was he so openly biased against them? Hoover also was regarded as a racist, yet it’s rumored he was actually part African-American. For someone with so much power, his pettiness and insecurity was puzzling.
The story of such an enigmatic character should lend itself naturally to the big screen, but director Clint Eastwood’s biopic of Hoover is flat and flavorless. All the key elements for an interesting film are there — Hoover’s domineering mother, his rumored homosexuality, the high-profile investigations — yet, they don’t mesh, and there doesn’t seem to be a point to the story.
As with most biographical films, there’s a lot to be told in a two-hour run time, and the lack of a strong, focused screenplay hurts. Screenwriter Dustin Lance Black’s weak framing of the story over two timelines prevents the film from developing a good flow. For instance, as FBI director, Hoover was notorious for garnering and keeping secrets of high-powered politicians, but as with other key plot elements, it’s not fully explored. What dirt did he have on the Kennedys, Nixon and Martin Luther King, Jr., and how exactly did he use it?
It’s unfortunate the film doesn’t fully take advantage of Leonardo DiCaprio’s masterful performance as Hoover. DiCaprio is incredible, and as a virtual one-man show, he’s certain to garner many award nominations for his performance. Armie Hammer (“The Social Network”) plays Tolson, Hoover’s deputy and possible lover, but DiCaprio outclasses him in every scene. His shortcomings are especially noticeable in a key scene where Tolson confronts Hoover about his repressed homosexuality. DiCaprio plays it perfectly, deftly avoiding any verbal acknowledgement of his attraction to Tolson, while Hammer comes off as a whiny, tantrum-throwing child. Naomi Watts is cast as Hoover’s loyal secretary Helen Gandy, yet with the exception of a cute early date, she’s not given much to do. The only other notable performance comes from Judi Dench, who plays Hoover’s mother. The scene where she warns her son about disclosing his sexuality by proclaiming her hatred for daffodils is powerful.
Eastwood is an excellent director with a proven track record, including an Oscar for “Unforgiven,” but his deliberate and quiet style tones down the story of such a complex, controversial man, and I couldn’t help but wonder if DiCaprio’s performance would’ve been enhanced by a better screenplay and more ambitious direction. Despite being captivated by Hoover’s life story, sometimes it’s all about the presentation.
“J. Edgar,” 137 minutes, is Rated R and opens in theaters Friday.