- Rated R
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All photos © Warner Bros.
Reviewed by Jason Zingale
f all the great actors and directors in Hollywood that have yet to work with one another, it’s hard to imagine a more enticing pairing than Leonardo DiCaprio and Clint Eastwood. The former has proven time and again why he’s one of the best actors of his generation, while the latter is currently enjoying perhaps the greatest period of his career with a string of successful projects working behind the camera. But no matter how promising the dream team combo might have looked on paper, the duo’s cinematic take on longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover doesn’t feel nearly as important or special as it should. An occasionally dull and rarely engaging run-of-the-mill biopic, “J. Edgar” plays things far too safe for a story about one of the most polarizing figures in American history.
The movie opens in the 1960s, with an elderly Hoover (DiCaprio) working on a book about the history of the FBI, which will also double as an autobiography of sorts. As he dictates his story to a series of trusted agents, the film jumps back and forth in time between Hoover’s struggles to earn the organization respect and his attempts at securing his own legacy. From his early days working in the Department of Justice to becoming head of the Bureau of Investigation (which later evolved into the FBI), Hoover made a name for himself by taking down gangsters like John Dillinger and Pretty Boy Floyd, introducing modern forensics into law enforcement, and solving the highly-publicized Charles Lindburgh kidnapping case, all while illegally wire-tapping unknowing citizens and blackmailing presidents in order to keep his job.
The problem, however, is that none of it is particularly interesting. The film operates more like a Cliff’s Notes version of Hoover’s life (jumping from one major event to the next) than a biography that examines what made the man tick, and the fact that Hoover himself narrates the movie gives the story a certain degree of falseness – a device that writer Dustin Lance Black exploits for a cute trick at the end. There’s also the issue of the way that the film is chronologically presented. Though it isn’t as confusing as it could have been, there are several decades (namely, the 40s and 50s) missing from the story. This wouldn’t be so bothersome if it weren't for the fact that the last time we see Hoover and confidant/rumored lover Clyde Tolson (Armie Hammer) as young men, they’ve just had a huge argument, only for their relationship to appear perfectly fine decades later. Which begs the question: what happened during that time in between?
But instead of delving further into some of the more delicate areas of his life – like Hoover’s egoism and bullying tactics or his relationship with Tolson – Eastwood only hints at what might have been, resulting in a whole bunch of speculation and tip-toeing around the topics that would have made a more fascinating movie. It’s as if he’s afraid to paint Hoover as a bad guy, even though he did some pretty controversial things, or take any definitive stance on his love life apart from the odd comment about not liking to dance with women or the subtle glances and hand holding between him and Tolson.
Ironically, that ambiguity actually works in Leonardo DiCaprio’s favor, allowing him to craft a more emotionally complex character without it coming across as too showy. But for as great as he is in the role, Armie Hammer is only that much more impressive due to the subtleness of his performance. He doesn’t have a lot to do compared to DiCaprio (who never seems to stop talking), but he’s the only character in the movie that you actually care about. The rest of the cast – particularly Naomi Watts, who's wasted in the thankless role of Hoover's long-serving secretary – isn't as fortunate, but that shouldn't come as much of a surprise considering just how mundane "J. Edgar" manages to be.